Sunday, October 9, 2011

MILDRED PIERCE (2011) - Review

You've probably heard about "Mildred Pierce" in the news lately as the HBO mini-series that won the Emmy Awards for Leading Actress (Kate Winslet) and Supporting Actor (Guy Pearce). It also won three Creative Awards, which is the new term for the more technical categories, which are now presented in a separate show, as if implying that nobody really cares about those. Well, geeks like me care. Anyway, back to business. This epic 6-hour mini-series is co-written, co-produced and directed by Todd Haynes ("Far From Heaven", "I'm Not There") and adapted from James M. Cain's homonymous novel.

I'm going to sum up some of the major events of the movie, which will prove to be slightly spoilerish, so proceed with caution. The story is set in the 1930s, in Glendale, California. Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet), a middle-class housewife, separates from her unfaithful husband, Bert (Brían F. O'Byrne), but now finds herself a single mother raising two girls with no immediate source of income. She has a talent for baking pies, but without any real qualifications she is unable to get a decent job. She eventually settles for a job as a waitress in a small diner. She slowly learns the craft and even improves the diner's prestige by baking pies for them, which gradually become very popular, but tries to keep her occupation a secret from her daughter Veda, fearing she would think low of her. As she gains experience and carefully observes the inner workings of the diner, she sets out to open a restaurant business of her own.

The restaurants become a big success, but her personal life unfortunately takes a turn for the worse. She falls in love with Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), a manipulative and exploitative playboy, an attachement that will ultimately cause her an incredible amount of suffering. Her younger daughter, Ray, dies of pneumonia and Veda drifts further away from Mildred, despire her attempts to give the ungrateful offspring all the comfort and love in the world. In fact, Veda is pretty much at the center of all that goes wrong in Mildred's life. The bumpy relationship between the two grows worse with the passing years. Even when Veda grows up to become a famous coloratura soprano (now played by Evan Rachel Wood), her narcissism and increasing hate towards her mother will eventualy explode in a bitter climax that is the equivalent to an emotional punch in the gut. Veda's disdain for Mildred is shocking. Perhaps Mildred loved her too much, seeing in her the promise of a better version of herself, reasons which made her tolerate Veda's verbal abuse and arrogant attitude far more than she should have. Her misguided love turned Veda into a spoiled brat in overdrive.

The story has a much wider scope, however, and I'll stop here with the spoilers. There's a lot of texture to the story, as you'll find out, and Todd Haynes does a wonderful job of constructing all that emotional tension. He allows the scenes to flow, without rushing to a payoff. The pace is slow, melancholic and always seeming to hint at some dark evolution, making you anxious to see what happens next. Some of you might have seen the 1945 adaptation of the novel, but the mini-series is nothing like that. The story unfolds in chronological order, as opposed to that movie's flashbacks structure, and follows the novel a lot closer, which means that the murder plot is removed and the novel's events are restored.

The actors are the real highlight here. Of course, the technical standards are excellent, the art direction, the costumes, the cinematography are great, but it's the acting that really jumps out. Kate Winslet delivers a thorough performance that builds up the character in all her complexity. We come to sympathize with her, even when we see her drifting from her way. Through Winslet's natural performance the character comes alive as more than just the protagonist of a melodrama. Somehow, I felt this should have been the role to earn her an Oscar, if only it wasn't a television production. I would say, with all due respect for her performance in "The Reader", that this is the defining role of her entire career, a sum of all her best acting abilities and a result of her accumulated experience. But, I suppose an Emmy is no small achievement either. The supporting cast is equally up to the task. Melissa Leo, as Mildred's best friend, Mare Winningham as Ida, a fellow waitress from the diner where she once worked, who helps her run the restaurants, Guy Pearce, Evan Rachel Wood and Brían F. O'Byrne inhabit their characters with strength and conviction, completing the story's canvas of characters, each owning up their place in Mildred's carousel of tragedy.

Overall, this a powerful mini-series. If you have an appetite for raw brooding melodrama, this is the right movie for you, an epic period piece, exquisitely written, directed, acted and featuring lavish production values. A must-see.

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