Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: "Mildred Pierce"

Kate Winslet is one of the most talented actresses working today. She has amassed six Academy Award nominations, winning a Best Actress award for The Reader in 2009. I am reminded of Paul Newman, as I watched The Hustler (1961) last night. Newman finally won his elusive Oscar in 1986 for The Color of Money after eight previous nominations. It is widely believed his 1986 statue was only awarded because he did not win in 1961. Winslet's finest performance is not in The Reader, and I would go as far to say it is her weakest nominated role. But like Newman, I know Winslet will receive future nominations. After an extended break following her Oscar glory, Winslet stars in the five-part HBO adaptation of Mildred Pierce, based on a 1941 novel by James M. Cain, which had been adapted into a 1945 feature film that won Joan Crawford an Oscar. The pacing of the miniseries is deliberately slow, often infuriatingly so, and if you can withstand the pacing you will find a film that is as emotionally heartbreaking as it is skillfully acted. Winslet is joined by Guy Pierce, Melissa Leo, Mare Winningham, and Evan Rachel Wood. Wood has the arduous task of playing the older character already established by Morgan Turner in the first three parts. Turner, at only eleven years old, delivers an incredibly layered and provocative performance. The miniseries is directed by Todd Haynes, whose films often feature complex narratives and beautiful art direction, like his most celebrated film, Far From Heaven (2002). He has a gift for evoking different eras, as Far From Heaven was set in the 1950s and I'm Not There (2007) in the 1960s. This miniseries matches a gifted director with a versatile actresses and the product is a five-hour film that may border on being too long but is nonetheless well worth the experience.

The story begins during the early 1930s in Glendale, California. Mildred Pierce (Winslet) is a devoted wife and mother of two young girls. She bakes cakes and pies to earn money since her husband, Bert (Brian F. O'Byrne), is unemployed. Bert is also having an indiscreet affair with another woman. Mildred, finally having had enough of her husband's transgressions, throws Bert out. She decides, with the help of her friend and neighbour Lucy (Leo), that she must find a job. Mildred does not want her daughters, Veda (Turner) and Ray (Quinn McColgan). Mildred believes waitressing is beneath her middle-class status. After a demeaning interview with a woman (Hope Davis) to be a maid, she finds herself in position to become a waitress at a small diner. Mildred befriends a coworker, Ida (Winningham), who helps her convince her boss to let her sell her own baked goods at the diner. Her pies are such a success that she starts selling to other restaurants and has to hire help at home. At work, Mildred meets a young man, Monty Beragon (Pierce), and the two begin an affair. She keeps her relationship hidden from her family and Veda is unable to find her mother when Ray falls ill. Ray's death and Veda's entitled behaviour leads to some very tense moments at home, as Veda has always seen herself as intellectually superior to her mother. Mildred, with her professional successes, is able to open her own restaurant and eventually both Ida and Lucy become involved in the business. As Mildred becomes more involved in her business, adding new locations, and Veda (Wood), who is trying to build her own music career, becomes jealous of her mother's relationship with Monty.

The five parts of Mildred Pierce each have a distinct vibe. Haynes has done a remarkable job making each separate installment feel like its own entity without losing the necessary cohesion. Winslet is a force as Mildred Pierce, who must demonstrate considerable growth in her performance. At first, Mildred is a weak woman who is subservient to her husband and daughters and she slowly becomes more self aware and stronger as her confidence grows. The Great Depression was not an easy time to find work. Haynes, as he did in Far From Heaven, uses colour to great effect in the miniseries. One scene in particular, when Mildred goes into a restaurant looking for work, is burned to memory. The steel grey colouring of the scene and the resigned faces of the waitresses perfectly personifies the era. At its core, Mildred Pierce is about the relationship between mother and daughter. Mildred's relationship with Vera is complicated and provocative. Kate Winslet lets Morgan Turner shine in the first three parts of the miniseries. Part one ends on such a tense note that it sets the tone for the rest of the story. It is a joy to watch Evan Rachel Wood, but her younger counterpart sets a tone that she is unable to match. I must also make mention of the music in the film, which helps to echo the uncomfortable and provocative feel of the story. At the end of each part, when the music filled the screen, I found myself trying to catch my breath. Mildred Pierce is not perfect. It is slightly too long and glacially paced, but Kate Winslet and the ensemble cast bring their best effort to a film that is more art house than a film for the masses.

My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.

1 comment:

  1. Personally while I enjoyed the Vida of it all, I felt the HBO version was a little too long. As ever Kate Winslet is superb but if the pacing of this version is too slow for you have a look at the original Oscar winning film. Joan Crawford stars in this portrayal of a woman ahead of her time. If you`re interested you can see the trailer here: