TV Review: Kate Winslet, Todd Haynes Elevate ‘Mildred Pierce’ to Masterpiece

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CHICAGO – When HBO announced that they were producing a six-hour mini-series version of the James M. Cain (“Double Indemnity”) novel “Mildred Pierce” to star Kate Winslet and be directed by Todd Haynes, cinephiles everywhere let out an audible gasp. Who better than the director of “Far From Heaven” to perfectly capture the details of a complex ’30s period piece and who better than arguably the best actress alive to lead such a daring project? But could the expectations possibly be met? Not only have they been met, they have been vastly exceeded. There’s no way to say it without sounding hyperbolic — this is one of the best things to ever air on television. TV Rating: 5.0/5.0
TV Rating: 5.0/5.0

Cain was known for noir (he also wrote “The Postman Always Ring Twice”) when he delivered his daring novel about much more than just double crosses and femme fatales. “Mildred Pierce” is an incredibly complex tale of class, money, power, sexuality, and parenthood. In the mid-’40s, Hollywood had no idea what to do with it. They added a murder to the story, changed the structure, and cut out most of what mattered about Cain’s book, winning an Oscar for Joan Crawford in the process but not really standing the test of time.

Mildred Pierce
Mildred Pierce
Photo credit: HBO

This is NOT the Crawford movie. Much closer to the source material, although with a heady dose of Haynes’ own personal touches along with an undeniable parallel from the depression of 1931 to today’s workers trying to stay at least in the middle class, HBO’s “Mildred Pierce” is a challenging, complex work with devastating emotional beats but nowhere near the level of melodrama that fans of the original might expect. In fact, some have already complained that “Mildred Pierce” is too low on melodrama, calling the mini-series languid and slow.

Mildred Pierce
Mildred Pierce
Photo credit: HBO

Nonsense. It’s shocking how many critics, perhaps in an attempt to appease the shorter and shorter attention span of their readers (or merely victims of it themselves), have turned “slow” into a negative word. There are plenty of classic pieces of fiction, theatre, and film that are slow. Believe it or not, sometimes slow fits the material. “Mildred Pierce” is long but it’s also detailed, deliberate, and devastating. We get to know Mildred and the important people in her life with long takes, most of it scored to the amazing compositions of Carter Burwell (“True Grit,” “No Country For Old Men”), and it makes the powerful moments resonate by the time taken instead of rushing from plot point to plot point. Do we need to see Mildred baking pies or staring out a window longingly? No. But it’s the moments like these that give the piece depth and weight that it wouldn’t otherwise have. I wouldn’t cut a single scene of “Mildred Pierce.” And some of my favorite moments are ones that other filmmakers would never have even considered shooting.

The pace of “Mildred Pierce,” along with the amazing production values all around, also give the mini-series a lived-in quality that’s typically missing from period pieces, especially those on television. This does not feel like modern actors playing dress-up, as so many of them do. The costumes are nowhere near as flashy as something like “Far From Heaven” but they are remarkably perfect for the material. The sets, the props, the costumes — every element of the production design works to create the perfect frame for the story of Mrs. Pierce and her loathsome daughter.

About that, we must get to the plot, right? It’s hard to “sell” this mini-series as it’s so complex but the most prominent throughline is that of Mildred and her oldest daughter Veda (Morgan Turner in the first three parts, Evan Rachel Wood in the final two). In the opening scene, Mildred is left by her husband (an excellently understated Brian F. O’Byrne) and forced to re-enter the working class to try to keep food on the family table. In the first two parts, she fights against being a kept woman again, turns down jobs she feels are beneath her, and deals with the scorn of a daughter who clearly resents the fact that they’re not upper class, much less the realization that they may be sliding to a lower one.

Mildred Pierce
Mildred Pierce
Photo credit: HBO

As the film unfolds from 1931 to 1940, tragedy arises and Cain/Haynes explore two things not often supported in the era (Mildred’s sexuality and her business sense), the arc of Mildred and Veda becomes the most prominent, especially on the final night. What do you when you’ve done everything you can for your daughter and she’s still a vile, spoiled wreck? And how much do we allow our children to control our lives when there’s no possible way to please them? How much can be forgiven when we look at our grown daughter and realize they are doing something unforgivable?

The saga of Mildred and Veda may be the constant, but there are other arcs and characters in “Mildred Pierce” as well. Guy Pearce steals the third part (the mini-series airs in five parts with 1 & 2 on the first Sunday, the very transitional 3 on the second, and 4 & 5 on the final night) as a lover of Mildred’s who becomes an interesting symbol of the problems of wealth that comes without work. James LeGros shines in a crucial role as a suitor who eventually becomes an investor in Mildred’s growing restaurant business and recent Oscar-winner Melissa Leo provides backbone without flash as Mildred’s good friend. Hope Davis and Mare Winningham are effective in small roles, as well.

Everything about “Mildred Pierce” is effective. I could go on and on, and it’s definitely worth noting that Ms. Wood does the best work of her career (and should join Winslet on Emmy night), giving a mesmerizing performance over the final two-and-a-half hours of the piece, but it all comes back to Kate. Her work here is simply incredible. She will win an Emmy and a Golden Globe and, were she eligible, she would have won an Oscar again. She disappears completely into the role in a way that’s stunning to behold. It’s a master class in the art of acting that stands as one of the best performances in a very long time — film or TV. The scenes between Winslet and Wood on the final night are absolutely breathtaking.

What more is there to say about “Mildred Pierce”? I tried to think of something negative to counterbalance what may surely read like an over-reaction and I just can’t do it. In many ways, Haynes has delivered the most impressive work of his career, guiding the best actress of her generation to another landmark piece of work. Perhaps this says it all: After six hours watching “Mildred Pierce,” I considered my schedule and looked forward to watching it again.

“Mildred Pierce” stars Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood, Guy Pearce, Brian F. O’Byrne, James LeGros, Hope Davis, Melissa Leo, and Morgan Turner. It was written by Todd Haynes & Jon Raymond and directed by Haynes. It premieres on HBO on March 27th, 2011 at 8pm CST and airs at that time over the two following weeks. content director Brian Tallerico

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