Mildred Pierce (2011)
Directed by: Todd Haynes.
Written by: Todd Haynes & Jonathan Raymond based on the novel by James M. Cain.
Starring: Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce), Guy Pearce (Monty Beragon), Evan Rachel Wood (Veda Pierce), Morgan Turner (Veda Pierce), Brían F. O'Byrne (Bert Pierce), Melissa Leo (Lucy Gessler), James Le Gros (Wally Burgan), Mare Winningham (Ida Corwin), Marin Ireland (Letty), Hope Davis (Mrs. Forrester), Quinn McColgan (Ray Pierce).
Todd Haynes’ films have mainly been about their look and feel, and not necessarily about their plots. This isn’t to say the plotting of Haynes’ films have been sloppy – anything but – just that the plot of his films can often be summarized in just a few short sentences, that do not give you the least idea of what it’s like to actually watch a Haynes film. The one real exception may be his 2011 miniseries – Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain, and clocking in at five and half hours. The film has a lot of plot and characters – yet Haynes still remains focused on the look and feel of the film, and the characters, and not quite so much on the plot. Even at this length, the final installment feels a little rushed – as if Haynes realized he still had a lot of stuff to cram in, and had to get it in under the wire (the first three segments all clock in right around an hour – the fourth runs over 70 minutes, and the fifth 80). The miniseries may not quite live up to the best films Haynes has ever made – but it’s still excellent, full of great period detail and performances – and represents a truer adaptation of McCain’s novel than the Oscar winning 1945 film with Joan Crawford, and directed by Michael Curtiz (although truer, doesn’t necessarily mean better).
The miniseries takes place over the better part of a decade – the 1930s – in which Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) has to struggle to support her two daughters. Her husband, Bert (Brian F. O’Bryne) has walked out on the family – and didn’t have much money to begin with – although he did when he and Mildred first got married. Mildred has no marketable skills, and it is the Great Depression after all. But she’s willing to work hard – first as a waitress and baker, and then when she opens her own restaurant – serving chicken and waffles. While the country is collapsing, Mildred makes herself into a success. In many ways, she is the personification of the American dream – at least on the surface.
But if Mildred Pierce were just about a hard working woman, there wouldn’t be enough drama here. The story is really about how Mildred’s American dream turns into a nightmare – all because of her eldest daughter, and Mildred’s inability to say no to her. From the beginning of the film, Veda (then played by Morgan Turner) is a snob, who looks down on anyone who has to work for a living – embarrassed by the fact that her mother works as a waitress, and finding ways to punish her for it. Mildred scrimps and saves everything so that Veda can have the music lessons she wants, the piano she wants, etc. Even her relationship with men is dictated by Veda. Mildred falls for Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) – a wealthy playboy, who has never done a day’s work in his life, and of course, he hits it off with Veda, who shares his snobbery. When Monty’s family fortune is wiped out though, he still doesn’t feel he has to work – and leeches money off of Mildred, resenting her the entire time he does it.
The 1945 film version of the novel turned it into a murder mystery/noir – which is what Cain is mostly known for (The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity for example), but not here. It also serves to give the film a happier ending, as the character that audiences are likely to hate gets their comeuppance in that film, that Cain, and then Haynes, does not. The story is about parental sacrifice – something all good parents do to one extent or another – but this time taken to extremes. Veda is an incredibly selfish and spoiled – a child who thinks that everything should be handed to her on a silver platter. If we feel sympathy for Mildred, we also have to be honest and lay much of the blame on her as well. After all, many children are selfish – it is the parent’s job to teach them something, and by giving in to Veda’s every whim – even if it destroys Mildred – she is simply reinforcing the lessons that Veda really is entitled to everything. Veda manipulates everyone around her – including her mother – to get what she wants.
As Mildred, Kate Winslet delivers a typically superb performance – one where you can feel her desperation in that first installment, as she goes door-to-door looking for working, and not finding it. Winslet is, refreshing, one of the most unapologetic actresses in dealing with sexuality – and her Mildred is a sexual being, going from Bert to Wally Burgan (James LeGros) to Monty with apology or shame. Her relationship with Monty will eventually be mainly about Veda, but when they first meet, the sexual chemistry between them is palpable. Winslet does, subtly, change her mannerisms as the series goes by – aging in the final installments, where she plays Mildred sliding into middle age, especially compared to the lithe, overtly sexual turn by Evan Rachel Wood as a 20 year old Veda (Wood, like everyone else in the film, is excellent). Winslet’s Mildred Pierce is every bit as fascinating as the other “housewives” in Haynes’ filmography – from Julianne Moore in Safe and Far From Heaven to Cate Blanchatt in Carol. What’s even more impressive is that all four of those characters are completely different from each other – all of whom may be living in a patriarchal society, where they are oppressed – but all of them are oppressed in different ways, and respond differently. Mildred may simultaneously be the strongest and most independent, and also the most foolish – she builds up and then loses everything.
Mildred Pierce isn’t quite the masterwork that Haynes’ other period pieces – Far From Heaven and Carol – are. I think in some ways, the film is too rushed, and in others it is too dragged out. Haynes has always loved immersing the audience in period detail – not necessarily realistic period detail, but more stylized, movie period detail. Mildred Pierce isn’t the colorful, Sirk-inspired melodrama of Far From Heaven – but a drabber, dirtier, dustier movie, with more muted colors. In the early installments, Haynes seems to delight in the details of art direction, and the superb cinematography (by Ed Lachman, of course) – and it almost feels like not a lot is happening. The last two installments really have to jam in a lot of plot – I’m pretty sure about 80% of what happened in the 1945 film happens in this installment, so some details – like how Mildred’s business starts failing, and how some people who she helped start betraying her – really does seem to be tossed into the movie as an afterthought - to be fair to Haynes, business dealings may not be as exciting as the personal relationships in the film – but even they are rushed. What makes the film work in these moments are the performances more than anything – Winslet more the rest, but there is excellent supporting work by Guy Pearce as a man who doesn’t know how to do anything except be rich, Evan Rachel Wood, bringing Veda’s spoiled behavior to new heights, Melissa Leo as a sympathetic friend to Mildred, Mare Winningham as a not so sympathetic friend (although, you can hardly blame her for her actions), and Bryan F. O’Bryne, who takes a fairly dull character like Bert Pierce, and makes him tremendously likable.
So no, I don’t think Mildred Pierce is the simple perfection of some of Haynes’ other work. Yet, it’s still one of the best miniseries of recent years – and really should serve as an example to other filmmakers, who want to make something longer than a movie, without committing to a television series. Because Mildred Pierce is every bit a Todd Haynes film - and a damn fine one at that.