Over the last few years HBO has treated viewers to epic miniseries on epic subjects. In “John Adams” the subject was the Revolutionary War and the growing pains of a fledgling nation. “The Pacific” examined the sprawling Allied campaign against Japan during World War II. This year brings us Mildred Pierce, a no-less-lengthy project (five parts aired over four nights beginning March 27) but with a more modest focus: the eponymous 1941 novel by James M. Cain.
Notice I did not say the 1945 film starring Joan Crawford. The folks at HBO want to make that clear. This isn’t a remake of that noir classic but a “reimagining” of the Cain novel by the acclaimed director Todd Haynes. Unfolding over a decade, “Mildred Pierce” is the story of one woman, of course, but also of the subtle class system in Depression-era America just as it was beginning to fray. Featuring the formidable Kate Winslet in the title role, “Mildred Pierce” boasts an impressive roster of talent, including Melissa Leo, Guy Pearce, Brían O’Byrne and Evan Rachel Wood.
The series begins with an ending: after a fierce fight, Mildred’s husband, Bert (O’Byrne), leaves the family home in suburban Los Angeles to move in with his not-so-secret lover. Mildred tries to hide the fact from their two daughters, at least for a short time, but her older child quickly grasps the situation. Why, the precocious Veda wonders, are Daddy’s bags gone from the closet? Right away we see that Veda has a sharp eye for her mother’s dissembling. The year is 1931, not a good time to be a newly single mother. Before long, Mildred is counting every coin and selling her famous pies to sustain the lifestyle to which her family had grown accustomed.
In his film “Far From Heaven” (2002), Haynes took as his inspiration the films of Douglas Sirk, appropriating their style in an effort to excavate social and political themes that Sirk himself—working in the age of the Hollywood production code—could not directly address. With “Mildred Pierce,” Haynes is up to something similar. Instead of exploring homosexuality and interracial romance, as in “Far From Heaven,” he focuses on the emerging role of women in the workforce and the bright line separating those who work from those who do not.
For most of her life, Mildred has been in the latter category. Yet once her husband leaves, she must find a job outside the home. Faced with few options, she briefly considers becoming a housemaid, but that is a bridge she cannot cross. She is repulsed by the prospect of a career “in service,” knowing that her prideful daughter would not approve. Eventually she is hired as a waitress at a coffee shop but hopes that she can hide this from her family. The effort proves fruitless: the 11-year-old Veda knows what her mother is up to, and devises an elaborate ruse to force her to confess the truth.
Viewers of the 1945 film “Mildred Pierce” will remember Veda (as played by Anne Blyth) as a particularly monstrous child. This time around, Veda is by no means an angel, but Haynes is not interested in making her out to be the devil’s spawn. Yes, there is plenty of screaming and slapping, but after every violent encounter Haynes allows his characters to take a breath and inch toward some understanding of their anger. So when Veda upbraids her mother for taking a job as a lowly waitress, Mildred comes to see that her daughter’s frustration is a reflection of her own pride. Unfortunately, any chance at true healing is soon lost when Mildred offers a lie to hide her shame. She took a job at the restaurant to learn the business, she tells Veda, and hopes to open a place of her own.
Such is the slow pace of personal growth in “Mildred Pierce.” Once you think a character has achieved an important insight or crept closer to maturity, she reverts to her old ways. While Mildred becomes a professional success, building on her pie-making skills to become a restaurateur, she is shadowed by her deceptions. She fails to consider, for example, how her daughter will be affected when she brings a man home. That Veda develops a schoolgirl crush on that man, a sort-of-famous polo player named Monty Beragon (Pearce), further complicates matters.
Beragon lives in a mansion in Pasadena, wears custom-made shoes and teases Mildred for what he calls her “pie wagon” business. He is only half kidding. Though he has no money himself—his family fruit business goes bankrupt—he never considers taking a job, preferring instead to “loaf” around, relying on Mildred to pick up his bills. To underscore the disparity between Mildred and Monty, Haynes punctuates the soundtrack (entrancing, by Carter Burwell) with campaign speeches from Franklin Roosevelt. Listening to F.D.R. on the wireless, Mildred applauds the social reforms he proposes, including expanded health care for the poor. Monty is not so sure.
Like “Far From Heaven,” “Mildred Pierce” seeks to infuse melodramatic material with real emotion. There are many dramatic moments—from blissful sexual encounters to one sequence of unbearable sadness; but they are spaced out so they feel organic, rarely forced. If the same story were told in 120 minutes, it would be the worst kind of soap opera.
This is the advantage of a miniseries: it allows the characters to develop naturally, while the series’ predetermined length ensures that the director can reach his desired conclusion. Along with BBC’s fine production of “Downton Abbey,” “Mildred” may signal a renaissance for this resilient art form.
Luckily, “Downton” is set to continue in 2012. Not so for “Mildred Pierce,” which follows the Cain novel to its devastating conclusion. Unfortunately, the final scenes ring false, even if the viewer half-knows where the story is headed all along. As the adult Veda, Evan Rachel Wood is suitably haughty, and Winslet proves once again that when it comes to embodying complex women she has few peers. Yet their last scenes together do not convincingly capture the Shakespearean scale of their characters’ betrayals.
Nevertheless, I was not disappointed. Haynes excels at creating unique moods, and here he succeeds in sustaining the film’s alluring atmosphere for close to six hours. “Mildred Pierce” may not be as ambitious as “The Pacific,” but it does portray a pivotal moment in the nation’s history. A great Western city on the rise, women leaving home to find their way in the workplace, a country emerging from the frozen class system of the robber baron era to embrace its egalitarian roots—all of these themes are touched on lightly, but with impressive effect.
The series also works, finally, as an intense study of one woman’s life. Mildred is a flawed individual, frustratingly obtuse and insufficiently introspective; but she is recognizable, too.
is online editor of America.