Wednesday, March 30, 2011

TV Review: Mildred Pierce, Parts I and II

At first, it seems like Todd Haynes' new adaptation of Mildred Pierce exists in a universe where no one has internal monologues, where characters either say exactly what they're thinking or have another character do it for them. It doesn't mean it's bad, per se, but it does mean it's the opposite of subtle.

Then again, this isn't a project that comes from subtle roots. The first adaptation of James M. Cain's novel was helmed by Warner Bros. go-to guy Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, White Christmas) and introduced a murder/thriller element to spice things up. Joan Crawford won an Oscar for her portrayal of the title character, but critics then and now saw the movie as being too histrionic for its own good.

Haynes' version tones things down, but what emerges doesn't seem much more realistic than its antecedent. Haynes, an auteur with a filmography that includes everything from New Queer touchstones to a music biopic that's half  8 1/2 and half Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould, instead chooses to turn the petty struggles of single motherhood into high Hollywood melodrama.

The HBO miniseries opens with Mildred (Kate Winslet, dependably great) arguing with her husband Bert (Brían F. O'Byrne) in their comfortable middle-class Los Angeles home. The fight has the air of one that's come many times before, though Mildred's accusation of adultery seems like a recent addition. Winslet drains all of the camp and glamor from Crawford's portrayal and swaps it for a brittle nerviness. Bert leaves the house perhaps quicker than he should, but it's clear than Mildred doesn't make the place particularly easy to live in.

Her husband's departure leaves Mildred in a tough spot. It's the depression, after all, and it wasn't exactly easy for women to get jobs in the early 20th century anyway. She shuttles between interviews for dreary office jobs and back-breaking in-house service work, all of which she spurns because she believes it to be below her middle class station.

In the words of one pithy employment agent, she eventually chooses her belly over her pride, though, and takes a job as a waitress at a Hollywood diner. It's hard to tell just yet (HBO aired the first two parts of the five-part miniseries last Sunday night) whether Mildred's pride is her own or stems vicariously from her preening bitch of an older daughter (a magnificent Morgan Turner).

And although that ambiguity seems like it will become interesting later on, it was one of the only things I found frustrating about the first two parts of Mildred Pierce. What makes it so damn hard for her to just have a damn job? I know waiting tables is a pain in the ass, but Haynes makes Mildred's first day as a waitress seem almost apocalyptic, and most household tasks seem similarly fraught with significance.

Veda's a priss, but Mildred seems to be made of hardier stuff. Nothing we see indicates that Mildred comes from an upper-class background or is hesitant to work for her money. Indeed, we see her busting her hump early in the movie making pies and cakes to sell to neighbors. Not exactly the behavior of the landed gentry. Haynes' choice to cut the scene of her first day waiting tables like a montage from a sports movie seems a bit over-the-top, in that light.

I guess we're supposed to ascribe extra significance to those awkward baby steps, though, since the latter half of the second episode shows Mildred's chicken and waffles (mmm...) restaurant in its nascent stages. So the early part of her experience in the restaurant industry becomes more significant in the light of what comes later.

But if the tone veers into crazytown occasionally, it's all in the service of making sure Mildred Pierce packs a punch. And nine times out of ten, it really does. There are few actresses better at telegraphing female desperation than Winslet, and she outdoes herself here. Her Mildred is by turns scrappy, stiffly prim, and pathetically sycophantic (mostly towards Veda), but she never seems schizophrenic and always remains empathetic.

Haynes surrounds her with a mostly terrific cast (an atypically bad part for The Fighter's Melissa Leo is the one bum note) and some gorgeous sets and photography. The script, as I said, is a bit too on-the-nose occasionally, but mostly it serves to create a kind of hybrid of traditional Hollywood bombast (actors deliver their lines like they're on stage rather than in front of the camera) and timeless middle-class struggle that seems even more pointed in light of what's going on today.

Note: I won't be reviewing each of the remaining three episodes on their own, but I'll post a wrap-up of some kind after the fifth part has aired.