James M Cain wrote Mildred Pierce in 1941 and based the character on a woman he was seeing at the time. It’s said that she offered much of the insight into women’s plights of the depression era from undisclosed women. Not that Cain needed help in writing a compelling story. He’s had a few hit novels that include The Postman Always Rings Twice. Mildred Pierce was an almost instant hit and was soon optioned for a film in 1945 staring Joan Crawford, for which she won an Oscar, and while she had been nominated three separate times, it would be her only win. The filmed did huge at the box office, and that’s where the character and story have pretty much resided for over 60 years.
HBO is no stranger to quality series or mini-series. The John Adams production is considered one of the best period mini-series ever made. The list of Emmys is long and well deserved. So, it is in their hands that the long-dormant Mildred Pierce would make her resurrection in the form of Kate Winslet. The all-star cast also includes: Homicide‘s Melissa Leo, Guy Pearce, Mare Winningham, Evan Rachel Wood.
It’s the story of Mildred Pierce (Winslet), a depression-era mother of two. Her husband Bert (O’Byrne) is cheating on her, and they finally have it out on the subject. The result is that he’s gone to his mistress and she’s left to provide for herself and her children. That means getting a job, which turns out to be quite a shock to her pride. Eventually, she does succumb to need and takes a job as a waitress in a diner. As luck would have it the owner is in need of a good pie maker, and Mildred is very good at making pies. The contract leads to more and more until she has a full-on business going making the pies. The pies lead to a chain of restaurants and a ton of wealth and success for the simple woman.
The price of her success is her family and personal life. She finds men who are able to do things for her and uses their affections until they are of no real use anymore. She can be quite cold to the people around her as her wealth increases. Her daughter has some wild aristocratic notions that cause a great friction in their relationship. Unfortunately for Mildred, her daughter has some of her own traits of manipulation, and the two spiral toward her eventual crash-landing back to the reality she started from.
The best asset this film has is Kate Winslet as the title character. I’m actually not a huge fan of the actress and haven’t really been impressed with her work, including Titanic. It also seems like I’ve had a heavy dose of her in the last week or so. Still, I have to admit that she more than inhabits the part. She blends in seamlessly with her surroundings and adds quite a touch of authenticity to the role. While the character’s motives are not quite so pure as you want to believe, Winslet makes the choices look natural enough for the character. Melissa Leo is also quite good as Mildred’s best friend. I haven’t seen her in much since the Homicide: Life On The Streets days, but she’s managed to keep a pretty good roll going that culminates in a strong performance here. The two actresses that play her daughter Velda at various ages often steal the show. The younger version is played by Morgan Turner. She is so good at being such a wretched little girl that I often found myself overcome with the desire to reach into the monitor and slap her one good one across the face. While it’s Mildred that continues to foster this bad behavior, she pays the highest price for it. The older version is played by Evan Rachel Wood, and seldom have I seen such a manipulative, spoiled woman on screen. The casting here is perfect, and it’s this casting that helps carry the mini-series through some decidedly slow times in the series.
That’s the trouble, really. There isn’t quite enough time here to truly warrant about six hours of screen time. The story is padded to the point that time gets a little hard to follow. There are moments when it appears years must have passed, but we learn it’s only been a short time. There are other times where years are compressed into such a short range that it can be a bit confusing. I’d say that pacing was a particular problem here, and one that these filmmakers never completely figured out.
The series does a good job with the period work from the costumes to the locations. Of course, I wasn’t around in the 1930’s, but I do feel like the series did a wonderful job of bringing the viewer into the period. It’s not likely that Mildred is a typical example of women of the time, but that’s what makes this a more interesting story to tell. There are certainly very good examples of the period women to be found, most notably in her friend and confidant, Lucy. These costume dramas can get too caught up in the period and forget to tell a compelling story. That’s not the case here.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec. The colors are quite warm so that an almost yellow-orange hue covers the entire color scheme. You get a sense of drabness that tells the story of the times. If colors don’t stand out, detail and texture certainly do. The textures really tell the story and place you firmly in the era from costumes to sidewalks. The detail is likely as good or better than the HD broadcasts. Black levels are fair and the prints are pretty much flawless.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 isn’t quite as immersive as the video. We’re dealing mostly with dialog here, and you get that perfectly placed and clear as you want. The source music serves as some of the soundtrack and comes through more or less as if it were coming from the radio or the live musicians. It’s not an aggressive mix, nor should it be.
It’s all in HD.
DVD copies of the show
Each episode has a 4-5 minute Inside The Episode piece. This is mostly interview material with director / writer Todd Haynes.
Making Of: (29:03) Cast and crew offer the usual sound bites along with behind the scenes footage and show clips. There is a particular focus on cast, costumes and locations.
I never saw the famous film with Joan Crawford, but there are many moments in this film where I think Winslet looks a lot like Crawford. I can imagine that many of these moments are intentional and might have been a factor in casting Winslet. The nature of the mini-series means that the show could not rely so heavily on the film but needed to look towards Cain’s book for most of the material. When you listen to Todd Haynes, you get a feel that he changed even quite a bit of that around himself. I think it’s a steady enough mini-series, but it’s not up to the production values, writing or even performances of the John Adams series. There might be a bit too much of Mildred’s relationships with the men in her life. It doesn’t make her as compelling or very sympathetic. In fact, I don’t imagine she’s even intended to be sympathetic at all. Still, if I had one word of advice for Haynes? “Aw…cut the mush”.