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TV Weekend: Mildred Pierce

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As a director, Todd Haynes (Safe, I’m Not There) sometimes seems less like a filmmaker than an enthusiast: a collector, say, of a certain brand of out-of-production figurine (he cast his early Karen Carpenter biopic, Superstar, with Barbie dolls) or a passionate fan of a highly particular out-of-fashion design genre. His 2002 film Far from Heaven was a tour de force and a curiosity: a romantic melodrama set in the 1950s, filmed in the style of a romantic melodrama of the 1950s. I liked it, I admired it, but was never sure what the highly mannered production added to the story. I realized, though, that if I shared the same passion for the collectible it emulated, I might have appreciated it better.

His new HBO miniseries, Mildred Pierce, which begins Sunday, is another cinematic vintage-store find. It’s an adaption of a 1941 domestic-life drama (which became a noir murder thriller in a 1945 movie), that at once updates the story (in attitude, naturalistic style and sexual frankness) and pays doting attention to the details, mannerisms and tropes of 1930s America and 1940s films.

The film is perceptive, it’s nuanced in sketching its title character, it’s mature in its handling of relationships. And yes, it is the definition of Emmy bait: Kate Winslet is almost constantly on screen for the 5 1/2 hours of the miniseries, and she will doubtless spend nearly as much time on awards podiums for it. But it also sometimes left me scratching my head as to why Haynes chose this particular project, and felt it needed this kind of epic scale and length.

Just to be clear: I don’t mean that the romantic, economic and family drama of Mildred–a divorced woman tries to launch a business, find love and negotiate a stormy relationship with her daughter–isn’t “important” enough for a film of this size. Private lives and interior dramas can be epic (see Woolf or Proust… or Zwick-Herskovits). But Haynes’ Pierce is a curious combo. It both pushes against and embraces the conventions of old-movie melodrama. It draws an empathetic, feminist, warts-and-all portrait of a strong, independent woman but is drawn on a source story that relies on melodramatic twists that can make her independence seem like a cautionary tale.

The title character (Winslet), a housewife in suburban Glendale, California, tosses out her cheating husband, Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne) and is left to fend for herself and two daughters in the midst of the Great Depression. After hitting the bricks to no avail, she finds work as a waitress. Her avocation is baking pies, though, and when she brings some to the lunch counter where she works, it becomes a sideline, then a full-fledged business, as Mildred opens first one, then a chain, of chicken-and-waffles restaurants.

At the same time, she takes a lover, Monty Bergeron (Guy Pierce Pearce), a rich, slothful playboy. Her real troublesome relationship, though, is with her eldest daughter, Veda (played as a girl by Morgan Turner and as a young woman by Evan Rachel Wood), a brilliant, status-conscious girl whom Bert and Mildred have indulged, from love, from wanting to nurture her genius and partly, it seems, from fear of her precocious, vicious judgment and sarcasm. As the story unfolds, Mildred masters her business in a man’s world, and she manages the men in her world (she even maintains a mutually respectful friendship with Bert). But the ungrateful, unpleasable Veda, we soon see, becomes the great, torturous challenge of her life.

If you’re keeping score at home, Haynes’ film is much closer to the James M. Cain novel (though it makes departures) than the classic movie, which added a crime plot, felt the touch of censors and featured a much more arch performance by Joan Crawford.

Winslet’s raw, unafraid performance is much more naturalistic. (Though there are period-film touches in the aesthetics, score and dialogue; get ready to hear the term “sap” a lot.) Her Mildred is cautious, level-headed and earthy. She’s wary about becoming both a businesswoman and a sexual free agent (and doesn’t kid herself about the challenges of both for a woman with kids in the 1930s). But she lets us see her discover, to her surprise, her skill and then easy confidence at both.

Veda is her weakness, and that conflict is both a strength and a weakness of the film. On the one hand, Winslet and Wood are electrifying in their battles, and Haynes does a powerful job depicting a parent’s nightmare: a child who just grows up bad, despite her parents’ efforts to stop it, and their palpable wish not to see it.

But where Mildred as a character is rich and multifaceted, Veda—a budding aesthete who grows into a musical prodigy—is just an absolute monster: entitled, cruel, narcissistic, dishonest and hurtful for its own sake. As the film becomes increasingly about their relationship, and Mildred’s desperate efforts to support and connect with her serpent’s tooth of a daughter, the story itself switches gears, transforming from a character study about a woman discovering herself against the realities of economic hardship into a kind of horror movie for parents. The contrast between the multifaceted Mildred and the flatly villainous Veda is stark—though, to her credit, Wood at least makes her an interesting and volatile monster.

Haynes is trying some interesting things here, in particular, making a film that wants to update the picture of a generation of women from the way Hollywood portrayed them in, well, movies like Mildred Pierce. He does this not by making Winslet’s Mildred an icon, but just a person, with flaws and uncertainties as well as deep strength and an unapologetic sense of what she wants.

But Mildred Pierce, the story, is a peculiar vehicle with which to do this–while I don’t want to spoil the miniseries, the source narrative includes a number of story turns that can play like cautionary tales of the dangers of sexual freedom and single motherhood. That’s not to say that Haynes endorses that view–in fact, his and Winslet’s portrayal seem to actively fight against it. But it raises the question of whether trying to update and correct the 1940s domestic-melodrama genre was the best project, as opposed to, say, telling another story of the period.

Then again, Mildred is a fascinating character, and Mildred Pierce an often psychologically acute story; maybe part of what drew Haynes to the project was wanting to restore Cain and his novel to their rightful place. I don’t think you should need to have seen either the original film or have read the original novel to appreciate Haynes’ Mildred Pierce–and yet I can’t shake the feeling that to truly love it, you do need to be aware of the three-way dialogue among the works. (Although in his own rave at Salon, Matt Zoller Seitz argues the opposite.)

Which again, may make Mildred Pierce a truly spectacular achievement–to a certain kind of enthusiast of a certain kind of vintage art form, who appreciates both the original artifact and Haynes’ technically brilliant reframing and critique of it. But while I was often captivated by Mildred Pierce, and always impressed by it, that makes it a more rarefied object: a work that can only be best appreciated in reference to its source material.

If you feel like you would like Mildred Pierce, in other words–if this kind of period piece is catnip to you–then I bet you will love Mildred Pierce. If not–well, at least, you might admire Haynes’ enthusiasm.