I initially wasn’t going to write at all about HBO’s “Mildred Pierce,” the five-part, three-week Depression era miniseries starring Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce and Evan Rachel Wood. Though it’s not nearly as melodramatic as the 1945 film that won Joan Crawford an Oscar, the subject matter and style represent a genre that doesn’t hold much interest for me.
But because of the talent involved – including director Todd Haynes (“Far From Heaven”) – I sampled it out of the hope that the execution would elevate it above my usual prejudices. (As kinda sorta happened with “Downtown Abbey” earlier this year.)
Instead, I found it a slog to get through. It’s tremendously faithful to the James M. Cain novel (Fienberg, who read the book a few weeks before watching the miniseries, was hard-pressed to identify anything that Haynes and co-writer Jon Raymond left out), and I suppose a lot of my problems can be pinned on the source material.
The miniseries is the story of how Mildred (Winslet) goes from being a destitute, divorced single mom to a successful (and promiscuous) businesswoman, always struggling to win the respect and love of her horribly snooty daughter Veda. And as played first by Morgan Turner, then in the final two chapters by Evan Rachel Wood, Veda is so radiantly unpleasant that only a complete sap would fail to see that she’s rotten to the core and not worth so much sacrifice and angst. Parental love can blind you to your kid’s faults for a while, but not for year after year, not after everything Veda says and does over the course of the story.
And as played by Winslet, Mildred is very far from a sap. She’s a tough cookie, savvy negotiator and survivalist – the material about her rise from desperate waitress to thriving restaurateur is the miniseries’ highlight – and she doesn’t even play her as if she has a blind spot for her eldest daughter. There’s scene after scene of Mildred looking like she knows just how toxic Veda is, yet the demands of the story require her to again and again make decisions that fly against what we can see on Winslet’s face. It’s supposed to be a tale of maternal obsession, but instead 90% of the miniseries features a wise character who randomly becomes self-destructively in thrall to her emotional vampire of a daughter for the other 10%.
So it’s nearly six hours of an otherwise smart, likable, admirable character consistently doing stupid things for the benefit of someone who’s completely insufferable – and doing it in a way that doesn’t track with anything else we see about our heroine. You can blame Winslet, or Haynes, or both, but something doesn’t fit, and it wrecks everything, above and beyond spending so much time on a story that could have been just as satisfyingly told at half the length.
Reaction seems mixed on this one, with a number of other critics finding it fantastic, and others having the same Mildred-Veda problem I did. (Fienberg fell in the middle, not having an issue with the mother-daughter relationship but still finding the whole thing far too long and worshipful of the book.) It looks great (I generally find Haynes to be a talented mimic more than a brilliant director, but he’s a mimic with a great eye) has a lot of fine actors in it (the supporting cast includes Melissa Leo, James LeGros, Brian F. O’Byrne and Mare Winningham), and the parts that aren’t about Veda but about Mildred picking herself up by her own bootstraps are quite good, but overall, if I could get those hours back, I would.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org