sat 14/12/2019

Mildred Pierce, Sky Atlantic | reviews, news & interviews

Mildred Pierce, Sky Atlantic

Mildred Pierce, Sky Atlantic

New version of James M Cain novel is gorgeous but soporific

Kate Winslet as Mildred Pierce with daughters Veda (Morgan Turner, left) and Ray (Quinn McColgan)

James M. Cain's novel Mildred Pierce is best remembered for Michael Curtiz's entertainingly lurid 1945 movie version, starring Joan Crawford. Featuring William Faulkner among its screenwriters, it played fast and loose with Cain's book, but bashed it into crowd-pleasing shape successfully enough to win Crawford an Oscar.

Cue Todd Haynes's five-part miniseries for HBO (brought to us, or to some of us, by Sky Atlantic) and the equation is reversed. Haynes has adhered to the original book with exaggerated reverence, so much so that the dialogue sometimes feels more like sequential monologues being read off the page by the characters. Carter Burwell has written a rather beautiful soundtrack, filled with haunting ensemble writing and an especially poignant piano motif, but its stately pace mirrors all too faithfully the longueurs of the drama.

Still, it all looks so wonderful and the performances are so carefully wrought that you may well find yourself leaning back to enjoy the ride, forgetting for the time being that the narrative is advancing with the reckless velocity of an iceberg trying to squeeze down a plughole. The setting is Glendale in Depression-era California, where money is tight and jobs virtually impossible to find. The period has been evoked in meticulous detail, from shopfronts and streets signs to cars and clothes, all enhanced by the slightly antique tone of the language.

bert_trimAgainst this backdrop, suburban housewife and mother of two daughters Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) finds herself replaced in her husband Bert's affections by his Other Woman, Mrs Biederhof (Brian F O'Byrne as Bert Pierce, pictured right). When he walks out, she's forced to swallow her middle-class pride and start pounding the pavements to find a job. At first reluctant to accept menial work or to be patronised by a snooty rich woman looking for a servile housekeeper, she learns (aided by blunt advice from her neighbour Lucy, played by Melissa Leo) that she'd better roll her sleeves up and get stuck in if she's planning to keep her girls fed. She takes a waitressing job in a restaurant, and struggles to juggle plates and handle obstreperous customers.

The problem with the show's funereal progress is that it makes it difficult to get a feel of where the story is headed. I was expecting slam-bang melodrama, but the first episode resembled a worthy proto-feminist fable, recounting the story of a woman whose emotional life has been repressed by her dull and unreliable husband, who is then forced to dig deep inside herself to find a resourcefulness she didn't know she had. Lucy tells her she has become a "grass widow", whatever that means. Her husband's colleague Wally Burgan (James LeGros) takes it to mean "available", and is soon barging his way into Mildred's boudoir.

veda_trimIt's precocious daughter Veda who tips us off that there's something nasty lurking in the plot cupboard. Played as a child by Morgan Turner (pictured left) - Evan Rachel Wood steps in as she grows older in later episodes - Veda is insufferably arrogant, pretentious and vain, obsessed with maintaining a social status the Pierces never had. A promising music student, she cruelly ridicules her mother's ignorance of classical music and is contemptuous of her vulgar need to earn a living. Instead of dialogue she regurgitates nuggets of rhetoric ("Very well mother, it shall be as you say" etc). You can bet that struggling to please her increasingly monstrous daughter is not going to make Mildred's life any easier.

Winslet skilfully catches Mildred's scudding moods as the scale of her predicament dawns on her, moving through frustration and anger on the way to a hesitant stoicism, and the entire cast dutifully serve Haynes's meandering vision. But if the story doesn't urgently get an adrenalin shot to the heart, this is going to be one long, laborious miniseries.

It's Mildred's precocious daughter Veda who tips us off that there's something nasty lurking in the plot cupboard

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