It's the kind of role an actress would kill for — it won Joan Crawford a 1945 Oscar and is likely to reap Emmy and other honors for Kate Winslet — but I wish I could say HBO's deluxe but draggy miniseries redo of Mildred Pierce was to die for.
"From now on, honey, you're fast." So says a jaded neighbor lady (newly minted Oscar winner Melissa Leo) to Mildred, left by her failure of a husband to raise two girls alone in the Depression, as the unhappy Mrs. Pierce considers taking her hubby's lumpy business partner as a lover.
Mildred begs to differ. She's desperate, but not fast. And neither is Mildred Pierce.
Stripping away the '40s movie's pulp melodrama and fatalistic noir framework, hewing with almost fetishistic devotion to novelist James M. Cain's blunt realism, director/co-writer Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven) fashions a much more mellow drama. This nearly six-hour adaptation is an over-indulgently languid showcase for Winslet to shine as the iconic and ultimate Mother Martyr.
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She cooks up, and emotes, a storm as a self-made single-mom businesswoman in hard times, starting a chain of home-style restaurants literally from scratch — this movie should come with a recipe book. Mildred sacrifices everything, including pride, to provide for her ungrateful and manipulative bad-seed daughter Veda (initially Morgan Turner, in later chapters Evan Rachel Wood), who desires nothing more than to escape from her clingy mother's provincial and occasionally combative grasp.
Winslet brings a bristling psychological intensity to Mildred's need to please the horribly greedy and transparently pretentious Veda (a thankless and frankly ridiculous character, regardless of who's playing her). This being HBO, there's also an unexpected eroticism to Mildred's pursuit of dissolute Pasadena playboy Monty Beragon (a terrific Guy Pearce), a leech who clings to the skirts of this can-do meal ticket. Mildred's a great gal, but a lousy judge of character, and this film's inexplicable overlength — five chapters over three Sundays, totaling five hours and 40-odd minutes — only succeeds in making her bad choices regarding family, finances and the boudoir feel more exasperating than tragic or compelling.
"Why can't you leave her alone?" a maid wonders about Mildred's devotion to Veda after one of many blow-ups. "Why do you want this girl back?" sputters a maestro who likens vocal prodigy Veda to a "little deadly snake." All good questions, and a tighter, punchier treatment with less reliance on flashy style — Haynes frames Mildred through mirrors and windows, a device that gets old quickly — might have resulted in a more satisfying entertainment. (And I'm usually a sucker for this sort of thing.)
Mildred's climactic awakening takes a shocking turn, but Mildred Pierce takes its sweet time getting there. Patience will be rewarded, but why should it be tested so sorely?
Mildred Pierce airs Sunday at 9/8c on HBO.