Mildred Pierce: TV Review

Slow-moving drama about a troubled mother-daughter relationship suffers from a lack of believability.

Director Todd Haynes' miniseries fails to develop the central relationship between the title character, played by Kate Winslet, and her vitriolic daughter.

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 hadn't seen the 1945 film that garnered Joan Crawford an Oscar for her role as the title character. Neither has there been much current scholarship on James M. Cain's 1941 novel.

Haynes (I'm Not There, Far From Heaven) had seen some modern day 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.

Haynes 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 on Mildred's then-shocking relationships with men, living outside conventional norms, a murder and her inability to please the petulant Veda).

The superb Kate Winslet stars here as Mildred, with Brian 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, who was also friends with Bert.

But the central concern in Haynes' version 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. Indeed, it was Cain’s focus as well, with Veda meant to be spoiled and petulant at first and then increasingly mean and evil through the years. But there's an absolute disconnect on how Veda turned out this way and, more important, how Mildred would both tolerate and fuel her behavior.

The miniseries begins in 1931 and Bert’s home building empire is washed out from the Depression. Veda is 11 and, 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 to 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 mostly endures the acid-laced talk Veda gives her.

What’s not understandable here is why. So, from the moment that mother and daughter are on screen, their relationship is oddly unbelievable. There's just no connection to the behavior or 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, not overtly hurt by the unrequited nature of their relationship.

This is a crucial fault, because it never leaves the miniseries during its 7 hours and 15 minutes spread over five chapters. We get glimpses 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 five or so hours earlier.) The only job Mildred can get to support Veda and Ray is a waitress job. It’s an idea that disturbs Mildred but, hey, the toll of the Depression isn’t over. Her kids need to eat. 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. And that’s the key turnaround for Mildred. One of the best clues to Mildred’s feeling about her eldest daughter is almost missed – a barely whispered statement to Veda at the end of part two that is at first too subtle and then, upon deciphering it, not backed by much evidence.

What we witness through the hours (HBO will air the first two chapters together on the 27th) is an admirable tale of Mildred, working with Wally’s backing, opening her own restaurant, 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 three. But part four 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 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 quite get enough storytelling as to why Mildred should be the one to blame. Nor is it clear, other than a mother’s love for her child, while Mildred seems so resentful of being shut out of Veda’s life. The girls has been a royal pain in the ass for most of her life. Let her fly free for a while.

It's worth noting that 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 of Mildred Pierce 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 spiral, which wonderfully conceals his later actions. And O'Byrne's steadiness as Bert makes him the most likeable character here.

But when all 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 have been in the adaptation – a loss of Cain's hardened belief that some people just ain't no good. It could be that Winslet's choice to dial back the melodrama in Mildred is what hurts the cause. She seems more like a mother who can’t figure out what she did wrong, rather than one who believes her daughter can do no wrong and thus obsequiously kisses her feet. That essential connection – super needy mother, withholding, vicious daughter – isn’t fully developed.

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

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