Sunday, March 27, 2011
Reviewing HBO's "Mildred Pierce"
While watching HBO's "Mildred Pierce," I made a mental list of all the things that could prevent Kate Winslet from taking home an Emmy for playing the title role in the lavish miniseries, premiering at 9 tonight. There are exactly three things on that list: committing murder, running a bum fighting ring, and starring in a British, female remake of "Norbit."
Those are literally the only things I could imagine coming between Winslet and an Emmy win. Because this project is practically designed to give the Oscar-winning actress another statuette. It's a period piece. She wears little makeup. Her character ages several years, goes through devastating pain and has no triumphs that aren't bittersweet. Joan Crawford won an Oscar for playing Mildred in a 1945 film, and I can't imagine Winslet not scoring the small screen equivalent.
In fact, the whole miniseries oozes with prestige. It's meticulously well-made and well-acted. In addition to Winslet, the cast includes Guy Pearce, Evan Rachel Wood, Mare Winningham and recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo. And the story, of course, is a classic, based on James M.Cain's novel. It focuses on Mildred, a Depression-era wife and mother who tosses out a cheating husband (Brian F. O'Byrne) and does all she can to support her two young daughters, including the headstrong Veda (played first by Morgan Turner and then by Wood). Her struggle to make a life for Veda -- and to win the ungrateful girl's appreciation -- dominates Mildred's entire life. Much weeping, face-slapping, object-throwing and hand-wringing ensues.
Yet, this isn't a cynical, award-grubbing project.Yes, it fits neatly into the "It's not TV, it's HBO" mode. But "Mildred Pierce" feels like something a bit deeper and darker than a simple prestige project.
The director is the quirky Todd Haynes, who also made the lush "Far From Heaven," which was an attempt to mimic the "women's pictures" of the 1950s.
As "Mildred" is a woman-centered period piece (this time, set in the 1930s), it's tempting to compare it to "Heaven," but Haynes is going for something different here. "Heaven" wasn't just set in the 1950s. It was, for all intents and purposes, a 1950s movie. The performances were the grand, soapy sort favored in the films of Douglas Sirk, and the whole thing was imbued with a distinctly 1950s sensibility (save the fact that Dennis Quaid's closeted gay character was allowed to live happily ever after with another man).
"Mildred," doesn't feel like a 1930s film. Yes, it has the clothes and hairstyles and music of the era. But its sensibility is definitely modern. First, there's a lot of nudity and sex in the miniseries. But there's also a subtlety that you wouldn't have found in a lot of 1930s melodramas. I must confess I've never seen the original "Mildred," but I've seen plenty of movies from the 30s and 40s -- enough to know they were a bit broad in their emotions.
Winslet and company do plenty of emoting in "Mildred," but Haynes, smartly, doesn't turn this into drama porn. In many potentially wrenching scenes, he doesn't revel in the roiling emotions, but shifts the camera away from the action. For instance, during the opening blow-up between Mildred and her husband, he lingers not on the fighting couple but on photos of the Pierce family in happier days. You can argue that this tactic places a barrier between the film and its audience, but I feel it actually heightens the anguish of the scene. The dissolution of the marriage is more devastating when we see what the couple once had.
It's touches like these that give the well-worn material a fresh spin. And yes, Winslet is fabulous as Mildred. With her big, soulful eyes and confident carriage, Winslet is the perfect melodrama heroine. Leo and Winningham are also fine as Mildred's brassy sidekicks, and Pearce appropriately oozes both charm and sleaze and Mildred's playboy lover.Wood and Turner are also good in their turns as the awful Veda, though the character is so thoroughly unlikable, Mildred seems like a sap for her constant devotion to the girl. But, overall, "Mildred" is an entertaining and satisfying effort. Yes, it's pure Emmy bait, but so what?
It's still worth your time.
Parts one and two of "Mildred Pierce" air from 9 to 11:05 p.m. tonight, with the remaining three parts airing over the next two weeks.