Mildred Pierce ****
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes & Jon Raymond based on the novel by James M. Cain.
Starring: Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce), Brían F. O'Byrne (Bert Pierce), Guy Pearce (Monty Beragon), Evan Rachel Wood (Veda Pierce), Melissa Leo (Lucy Gessler), James LeGros (Wally Burgan), Mare Winningham (Ida Corwin), Morgan Turner (Veda Pierce), Quinn McColgan (Ray Pierce), Hope Davis (Mrs. Forrester), Marin Ireland (Letty), Murphy Guyer (Mr. Pierce), Diane Kagan (Mrs. Pierce), Ronald Guttman (Carlo Treviso), Daniel London (Mr. Levinson), Mark Margolis (Mr. Chris).
Todd Haynes loves old fashioned melodramas. His 2002 Douglas Sirk tribute Far From Heaven is still one of his best films, and now he has made an excellent miniseries of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce. The original 1945 film, directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Joan Crawford in her Oscar winning performance, turned the book into a cross between melodrama and noir – adding a murder to the plot so that the “villain” of the movie could be punished for her wrongdoing. But Haynes’ version sticks close to the text of Cain’s original novel. Not noir like his other well known books – The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity – Mildred Pierce was wider ranging and epic in scale. That makes the choice to do a miniseries, instead of a movie, out of it valid. I still think the 1945 is better – Crawford has never been better, and Anne Blythe is amazing – but this is still great filmmaking.
It’s the Depression, and Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) has two girls to raise, and a husband who was once prosperous, and has now fallen on hard times. She could deal with that, but she cannot deal with him cheating on her, so she throws him out of their house. Now, however, she has a problem. She has no job, and isn’t really good at doing anything except baking. Worse still, her oldest daughter Veda (played at this point by Morgan Turner) is used to a “certain lifestyle” and has exacting standards that she expects everyone – including Mildred – to uphold. But when the money runs out, and there’s nothing else to do, Mildred “degrades” herself by taking a job as a waitress in a diner. Soon she realizes she shouldn’t just be waiting tables, but should have her own place – something that she, and Veda, can be proud of. When her younger daughter dies, she devotes herself to making a success out of herself, and making Veda proud of her. But nothing she does will ever be good enough for her daughter – she just keeps wanting more.
Told in five parts, Mildred Pierce admittedly starts out a little slowly in part 1. Haynes has to spend pretty much the whole first part establishing his characters, and the time and place they inhabit. It’s still an entertaining hour – especially because of the performance by Kate Winslet – but things don’t really start moving until the second hour. In fact, I think that every party gets a little bit better. The fourth and fifth parts represent the high melodrama that Haynes does better than just about any other American filmmaker working right now.
The film is anchored by its excellent cast. Of course Kate Winslet is great – she almost always is. And here, playing a housewife who makes herself into something bigger and is slavishly devoted to her daughter, she gives one of her better performances. Winslet wisely doesn’t try to outdo Joan Crawford, and instead makes her Mildred more down to earth and sympathetic. She is a woman fiercely devoted to her daughter – so devoted in fact that it blinds her to who her daughter really is. She will essentially destroy herself for her, and despite the fact that the end looks like she will finally let go, I doubt it highly. Evan Rachel Wood does an excellent job as the older Veda in the final two chapters – all sexual energy, as she manipulates everyone around her. But Morgan Turner is great as well as the younger Veda – setting the stage for what comes after. I also loved Guy Pearce as the wealthy playboy Monty, who is no longer wealthy, but acts like he is anyway. Add in solid work by Brian F. Bryne as Mildred’s first husband, Melissa Leo as her every faithful friend, Mare Winningham as a fast talking waitress and James LeGros as an alternately helpful and slimy business associate, and Haynes has assembled a great cast.
I also love the visual look of Haynes miniseries. In Far From Heaven, he went with bold, bright colors, but here, a more somber piece, his color palate is more muted. His camera glides effortlessly around the diner, and later the restaurant and the mansion. And surprisingly, the sex scenes in Mildred Pierce (and there are quite a few) are actually sexy.
After watching Mildred Pierce, I am left wondering why more major directors like Haynes don’t try to make one. They have more freedom, and with more screen time to work with, can tell larger stories. I’m not sure if anyone is going to do what Haynes did here, I wish someone else would.