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‘Mildred Pierce’

“Mildred Pierce” (HBO)
Andrew Schwartz/HBO

HBO’s miniseries of the classic trades noir for melodrama.

Everything was aligned for HBO and director Todd Haynes to make an enormous splash with the five-part miniseries Mildred Pierce. A lot of potential viewers haven’t seen the 1945 film that garnered Joan Crawford an Oscar for her role as the title character, and there hasn’t been much current scholarship on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, either.

Haynes (I’m Not There, Far From Heaven) had seen some modern parallels to the novel (Depression-era but Los Angeles-based and more to do with class restructuring than Dust Bowl poverty) in our most recent economic downturn and was particularly intrigued by the hideously contorted unrequited love between mother and daughter.

He wanted to focus on how Mildred Pierce suffered from cheating husbands, economic turmoil and long odds of making it in the world as a single mother with two kids, only to complete a reversal of fortune that ultimately wasn’t nearly enough for her daughter, Veda, to appreciate. (The film with Crawford focused more on Mildred’s then-shocking relationships with men, living outside conventional norms, a murder as well as her inability to please the petulant Veda.)

The superb Kate Winslet stars as Mildred, with Brian F. O’Byrne as her first husband, Bert, who cheats on her and is, after it becomes too much for Mildred, tossed out of their Glendale home. Guy Pearce plays Monty, the rich slacker cad who seduces Mildred and stokes her independence. Melissa Leo is her neighbor and confidante, Lucy. And James LeGros is her business counsel (and sometime lover), Wally.

But the central concern in Haynes’ and Cain’s versions of Mildred Pierce is Veda, played as an 11-year-old by Morgan Turner and then as a 20-year-old by Evan Rachel Wood. Veda is meant to be spoiled and petulant at first and then increasingly mean and evil through the years.

The miniseries begins in 1931, when Bert’s home-building empire is washed out by the Depression. Veda is, as soon as we meet her, unbelievably haughty for no discernible reason. Turner, the young actress, plays her like she descended from a BBC series. Compared with younger sister Ray (Quinn McColgan), Veda seems like an evil alien dropped down to poison the Pierce home. Even though they live in Glendale, Veda — who plays piano — fancies herself among the upper crust, and Mildred endures the acid-laced talk Veda gives her.

What’s not understandable is why. So, from the moment that mother and daughter are onscreen, their relationship is oddly unbelievable — both the behavior itself and the acceptance of it. If Mildred desperately wants Veda’s approval, we don’t necessarily get that from Winslet, who tolerates most but not all of young Veda’s indifference and acting out (she’s not afraid to spank her, for example) with a look that says perturbed but not brokenhearted. This is a crucial fault, because it dogs all five hours and 41 minutes of the series.

We do get glimpses of the source of Veda’s bitterness: With her father out of the house and shacked up with another woman, Mildred — gasp — has to work. (In the final hour, Mildred talks to Bert and says that before the Depression, they lived as well as anyone in the country, a sentiment that might have been handy to know about five hours earlier.) The only job Mildred can get to support Veda and Ray is as a waitress. She’s a lousy waitress at the beginning, but she has a side business making pies, something she’s done at home for a while.

What we witness through the first two hours is the tale of Mildred, working with Wally’s backing, opening her own restaurant and succeeding in a man’s world. Meanwhile, Veda continues to be something of a child prodigy at piano, and Mildred foots the bills.

There’s a very slow pacing to Mildred Pierce, but not one that should come as a surprise to fans of HBO, which lets its creative people tell full stories. And yet you begin to wonder when events will accelerate or explanations will be given. Neither occurs much in the two years encompassing Part 3. But Part 4 suddenly lurches forward four years, and circumstances have improved greatly for Mildred. Here’s where we’re introduced to Wood’s version of Veda. She’s less overtly hostile toward her mother until a well-respected music teacher gives Veda the bad news: She’s not the talented pianist everyone (especially Mildred) imagines.

While Veda spirals into bad behavior, and some of her monstrous tendencies reveal themselves to Mildred, we still don’t get enough explanation as to why Mildred should be the one to blame. Nor is it clear why Mildred seems especially resentful of being shut out of Veda’s life — the girl has been a royal pain in the ass for most of her life.

It’s worth noting that the spirit of the original film’s noir is missing here, replaced by ever-increasing melodrama. From the first to the last part of the miniseries, Haynes has a fascination with shooting from behind and through glass, but the stylistic tic doesn’t reverberate with much metaphor, if that’s what was intended.

The last two parts pick up the pace exponentially, but there’s a strange rush to it all and an almost too-pat coming together of lives and story. Leo’s role is strong but not flashy. (Mare Winningham gives a strong performance in a smaller role. Hope Davis has a cameo.) Pearce’s upper-crust descent is an almost happy-go-lucky fall, which wonderfully conceals his later actions. And O’Byrne’s steadiness as Bert makes him the most likable character here.

But when the storytelling is coming to a climax, there’s something missing: the same connection that was absent between Mildred and Veda from the start. It could be Winslet’s soft touch with Mildred — she comes across merely as a mother who can’t figure out what she did wrong.

Or the problem could be that Haynes’ vision of a sweeping mother-daughter story wants for a complexity, a vast emotional grandeur, that Cain’s writing just doesn’t give us. Maybe Mildred Pierce plays better as hardcore noir, where motivations begin and end inside dark hearts — no explanation necessary.

Airdates 9-11:05 p.m. Sunday, March 27 (Parts 1 and 2); 9:15-10:30 p.m. Sunday, April 3 (Part 3); 9-11:30 Sunday, April 10 (Parts 4 and 5) (HBO)
Cast Kate Winslet, Morgan Turner, Evan Rachel Wood, Brian F. O’Byrne, Guy Pearce, Melissa Leo, James LeGros, Quinn McGolgan, Mare Winningham, Hope Davis