Thursday, April 14, 2011

Getting Melodramatic With MILDRED PIERCE

TV Miniseries Review: MILDRED PIERCE

- Why did I watch MILDRED PIERCE? When I first heard about the prestige HBO miniseries, I didn't have much interest. It seemed like one of those stuffy PBS things that wins a bunch of Emmys but is inevitably boring as all hell. But as I read more about Mildred, I realized that this wasn't your average historical melodrama. Somehow, it had eluded me until now that Mildred Pierce was a book written by the great James M. Cain - the pulp fiction icon who wrote, among other things, "The Postman Always Rings Twice." My interest was now piqued. Later, I read an extended review written by Stephen King, in which the famed master of horror raved about the series, and compared it favorably to the original movie adaptation from way back when. Now, it was clear that Mildred was something worth checking out.

And now that I've seen all five chapters and six hours of Mildred Pierce, I can say that I'm glad I went along for the ride. This was an exquisitely-made, high-class piece of television - but it was also far from a stuffy period piece. Sure, the series begins as a character study steeped in period detail - the story of an independent woman struggling to make something of herself in 1930's Los Angeles. But as the story progresses, it becomes increasingly melodramatic, unhinged, and twisted. Its tragic twists of fate, morally dubious characters, and circular plotting give Mildred Pierce - when all is said and done - the undeniable tinge of film noir. This is no fluffy costume drama - there's some serious darkness at the heart of this story.

Mildred Pierce's title character (played with amazing range by Kate Winslet) is a woman of grit and determination and ambition, at a time when most women in America lived a domesticated and socially-inhibited lifestyle. When we first meet Mildred, she is a housewife - playing second fiddle to her distant husband, increasingly frustrated with a life that's seen her forsake personal goals for the sake of tending to her family, including her two young daughters. However, Mildred suddenly finds herself forced to fend for herself when her husband leaves her for another woman. Forced to figure out a means of supporting her and her daughters, Mildred has to put aside her status as an upper class woman and humbly find any work that she can get - especially difficult in the midst of the Great Depression. Eventually, Mildred stumbles upon her Big Idea - to start up a restaurant that builds off of her success as an amateur piemaker and cook. As MILDRED PIERCE progresses, Mildred experiences greater and greater success, but continually makes moral and personal mistakes that make you wonder when the other shoe will drop. Mildred's determination and strength of will help her to overcome a lot of things and to become a true entrepaneur at a time when not many women were able to do so. You've got to root for her - the woman's got spunk. And yet, she also has poor judgement - she doesn't properly parent her bratty children, she takes up with Monty Beragon - a pompous leech of a guy who mooches off her money, and uses a fair number of people as stepping stones to achieve her own success. As time goes on, a lot of these mistakes come back to bite her. In particular, Mildred's older daughter Veda becomes her mother's biggest source of drama and antagonism. From the start, Veda is bratty and obnoxious and has a sense of entitlement that's creepy given her youth. But as time goes on, Veda becomes manipulative, deceitful, and just plain evil. And man, do things ever get dark and disturbing in terms of the love-hate mother/daughter relationship that develops.

Mildred Pierce features some very elegant and cinematic direction from Todd Haynes. At times he simply basks in the period detail of 1930's LA. Other times he creates a foreboding atmosphere of tension and dread. But throughout, he keeps the pacing methodical, slowly building and building until, in those last couple of hours, things just blow up and everything goes nuts. Yes, there were times when the miniseries got a bit slow ... but what kept me invested was the incredibly strong performances. Kate Winslet is fantastic as Mildred, and no doubt she will rack up many an award for her multifaceted portrayal of such a complex, hard-to-pin-down woman. What's interesting is how 2011 Mildred feels - and yet it's interesting to think of her having these modern sorts of attitudes - about ambition, status, sex, gender etc. - during a much more repressed and rigid time. Guy Pierce is also superb as Monty - he just comes off as such a prick, it's easy to hate him - but the fact that Mildred falls for him, despite the character's douchiness, helps us to realize just how misguided she can be. Plus, there is definitely some pretty crazy chemistry between Winslet and Pierce. Monty and Mildred have a pretty messed-up relationship, but you can see that Mildred has a side of her that thrives off of the sheer physcial attraction that Monty feels for her. Also, in the final two chapters, Evan Rachel Wood comes in and steals the show. As the 20-year-old version of Veda, Wood takes the character's earlier incarnation as a bratty kid and cranks the dial to eleven - she's gone from bratty to flat-out psycho-bitch. Wood plays things over-the-top and melodramatic, but it fits with the series' escalating sense of tragedy and desperation in its closing couple of hours. The cast is rounded out by a number of excellent supporting players - from Melissa Leo as Mildred's close friend to Hope Davis as a snooty aristocrat.

As a guy who wouldn't normally count something like this as must-see TV, I have to say that I got sucked into Mildred Pierce because it did have that element of darkness and the turning of the screw that I love in pulp fiction and film noir. I like that what starts out as a straightforward-seeming story about an enterprising, ahead-of-her-time woman morphs into this crazy-ass tragedy that goes to dark and disturbing places. Film noir often deals with the theme of the best-laid plans going to hell in a handbasket, thanks to various cruel twists of fate. Mildred Pierce is no different. When the miniseries ends, and Mildred has come full circle - three steps forward, two steps back - well, it's a pretty haunting story when all is said and done.

My Grade: A-

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