So many elements of this five-part HBO mini-series (available next week on DVD and Blu-ray) are impeccable, including the production design, cinematography, and an overall production value that takes you back to the 1930’s Los Angeles in the most believable way imaginable. You also have James M. Cain’s classic source material, a respected and talented feature director in Todd Haynes, and an A-list cast that includes Academy Award-winners Kate Winslet and Melissa Leo, along with Mare Winningham, Guy Pearce, and a host of terrific character actors.
So what went so wrong?
“Mildred Pierce” is based on Cain’s classic potboiler of the same name, about a woman living through the dark days of the Depression in the generic suburb of Glendale, California. Mildred’s attractive, smart, and knows her way around a kitchen. Her ongoing downfall, however, is perpetually brought on by an attraction to bad men and an unnatural dedication to her oldest daughter Veda, a monster of need and manipulation — who’s really just a carbon copy of Mildred minus humanity.
After Mildred (Winslet) kicks her cheating husband out of the house (a very good scene), she has no car, no way to make a living, and in these economic times, no real prospects. She eventually “lowers” herself to accept a waitress job in a cafe where her smarts and notable cooking abilities gives her the know-how and confidence to open a place of her own — with a little help from her husband’s former business partner, the shady Wally, who Mildred is also enjoying loveless sex with.
As fate would have it, on her last day of work, Mildred meets Monte (Pearce), a handsome playboy with a Clark Gable mustache who haunts the attic of the mansion (that’s now up for sale) his family once occupied until the Depression wiped him out. On their first date, Monte and Mildred enjoy passionate HBO-ey sex and spend the night together. Fair or not, the consequence of this behavior sets the stage for the next decade of Mildred’s life, which will include professional successes, failures, and more personal turmoil than a full season of “One Life to Live.”
At nearly six hours over five chapters, “Mildred Pierce” is just too long. Cain’s novel is less than 300 pages, which means the screenplay for this 336 minute mini-series was probably longer. In the first and last two chapters, the pacing is downright stifling. Reportedly, Haynes wanted to do a slavish adaptation of Cain’s novel, but there’s a reason why even the most popular novels are almost always altered and cut dramatically for the silver screen — and that includes director Michael Curtiz’s far superior 1945 “Mildred Pierce” adaptation, which won its star, Joan Crawford, a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar.
When it comes to an art form, novels and films are as different as juggling and playing the tuba. To attempt to mash them together is only inviting trouble. Haynes (who also co-wrote the script) actually gets away with more than he should. There are number of compelling scenes and sequences, especially in chapters two and three. But for the most part, there are so many unnecessary scenes and so much extraneous dialogue that time and again you’re taken out of the story wondering what the point of it all is.
Another problem is the title character. Whereas Crawford played Mildred as a strong, clever, and unassuming woman who’s regularly conned and caught off guard by her awful daughter and the equally awful men in her life, Winslet portrays her as a sap, a perpetual victim and self-appointed martyr (You’ve come a long way, baby!). Over the course of a two hour film, it’s much easier to digest and sympathize with a mother who keeps falling all over herself to please a spoiled, ungrateful daughter who’s impossible to please. After three hours, though, you start to lose sympathy with someone who seems to enjoy being used like a doormat by everyone around her. It becomes frustrating to witness a woman who’s obviously intelligent continue to beat her head against a wall which we all know will never budge.
And then there’s all that HBO-ey soft-core porn. Winslet is gorgeous, but after a while even I got tired of seeing her naked. In almost every chapter, the story simply stops for various sex scenes performed in various positions that serve no story purpose whatsoever. Do I really need to see Pearce with his head in Winslet’s naked crotch?
The performances are mostly good, especially Pearce, but the harder-edged characters portrayed by Leo and Winningham seemed a bit over-the top at times, and Winslet — who’s in every scene — can’t do much after the second hour except repeat all the same emotions we’ve seen so many times before. And it’s the repetitiveness of these emotional beats that do the most damage in bogging down the story and sapping your sympathy for a protagonist who, shame on her, is fooled way more than once.
A fascinating exercise for Haynes and HBO would be to re-edit the entire production and cut the run-time to something closer to 150 minutes. There’s a choice steak in all that fat. I’m sure of it.