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In the minds of most people, "Mildred Pierce" is a high-voltage soap opera from 1945, with Joan Crawford (in the role that earned her her only Academy Award as best actress) as a devoted mother and businesswoman with very sharp eyebrows and very bad luck. But director Todd Haynes' adaptation of "Mildred Pierce" tells a richer, far more complex story; although the five-part HBO miniseries is set in the 1930s, its themes are jarringly, even shockingly, timely.
Haynes established himself as a filmmaker with the instantly controversial "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," in which Barbie dolls told the story of the beloved singer's swift rise to fame and lengthy battle with anorexia nervosa. His most popular film, "Far From Heaven," was made in 2003, but looked and sounded like a "women's picture" from half a century earlier, complete with intentionally stilted dialogue, presentational performances and luscious, glowing Technicolor. Both films operate on two levels at once: You can laugh at the daring stylization, or challenge yourself to connect to the tragic storylines.
In its own understated way, "Mildred" turns the "Far From Heaven" idea inside out. There's not a hint of campiness or irony in the entire five-and-a-half hours, although Haynes could easily have steered in that direction. The James M. Cain novel on which the film is based is ripe with adultery, casual sex, betrayal and heartbreak, the topics that are the bedrock of melodrama, and "melodramatic" is definitely an adjective that comes to mind when discussing the 1945 version. Haynes goes in precisely the opposite direction. He wants to find the raw honesty and emotional substance tucked inside Cain's sometimes tawdry tale.
So does Kate Winslet, who gives nothing less than a tour-de-force performance in the title role. She's in practically every scene -- and often at the center of the action -- as an unhappily married mother of two who uses her wits and her cooking skills to save her family and crash Southern California society at the height of the Depression. While Crawford played Mildred with a determination and inner fire that made her practically incandescent (perhaps because she realized the film might be her last chance to prove, after a series of flops, that she was not a has-been), Winslet's interpretation is earthier, warmer and much more poignant.
Crawford's Mildred represented a dazzling star turn, a characterization that was built around what she perceived as her audience's expectations: Crawford specialized in feisty, bulletproof souls that suffered in glamorous style. Winslet has the laser-like focus and intensity Crawford conveyed, but she embodies the character instead of enshrining her as an archetype. Sporting a stiff, helmet-like hairdo and shoulder pads that might have doubled as futons, Crawford excelled at bringing Mildred's fury and rage to the forefront, whereas Winslet delves deeper, tapping into the disorientation and helplessness of a sheltered housewife abruptly forced to make a living.
Even when Mildred succeeds, Winslet allows us to see glimmers of insecurity and uneasiness beneath our heroine's chic new clothes. Mildred may eventually be carted around town by a chauffeur, but in Winslet's eyes she's still a woman who's constantly worried she's being taken for a ride.
Abandoned by her husband, Bert (the excellent Brian F. O'Byrne), who's barely bothered to try covering up his affair with a neighbor, Mildred must find her footing in the working world at a time when jobs are scarce and employment for women with no previous experience is almost non-existent. She hopes for an office position, but soon realizes she might as well dream of co-starring with James Cagney: The employment agency sends her out to interview for a housekeeping job with a haughty lady of the manor (Hope Davis), who immediately tries to play mistress and servant, even before Mildred is hired.
Accustomed to being in control and having some degree of power, Mildred is now entirely at the mercy of a system that couldn't care less about her or her family. When she does find employment, she feels horrified and humiliated by it.
"I'm a waitress in a hash house," she tells her craftier, more worldly wise friend, Lucy (Melissa Leo), making it sound as if she was moonlighting in a massage parlor. In that moment, the trials of 1931 suddenly take on a genuine immediacy: How many people do you know who have had to lower their standards, swallow their ideals and work for far less than they're worth in the past few years?
Cain's plot pivots on Mildred's soul-crushing relationship with her oldest daughter, Veda, solidly played as a child in the first three episodes by Morgan Turner and as a teen by the delicately diabolical Evan Rachel Wood. Although Veda is a gifted pianist, her true talents turn out to be snobbery and manipulation.
Even as a child she's insufferably highfalutin, given to talking like she just strolled in from a Norma Shearer movie. "Oh, mother, cut the penny-dreadful dramatics," she snaps at Mildred as her mother tries to explain why she joined the work force. Later, during what almost turns into a Christmas Day catfight with Mildred, Veda will sneer, "Ye gods and little fishes, hear my cynical laughter."
Most parents would want to send Veda off to a remote boarding school (or a reformatory), but not Mildred; she devotes her days to trying to please and pacify the girl. "She has something in her I thought I had in me," Mildred muses. "Pride or nobility." In the same way some people delude themselves into thinking they can somehow become celebrities by attaching themselves to the famous, Mildred fools herself into believing she'll earn the respectability she craves by slaving away at the feet of the ever-ungrateful Veda.
Self-sacrificing moms are commonplace in literature and theater, but "Mildred Pierce" portrays the martyr as a masochist: Instead of a child constantly struggling to curry favor from a persnickety parent, Mildred is the one running herself into the ground and hoping that Veda won't walk all over her.
Taking full advantage of the time and space he's been given, Haynes lets "Mildred Pierce" develop at a leisurely pace that allows even the secondary characters, such as Leo's shrewd Lucy and Mare Winningham's veteran waitress-turned-manager, to emerge as full-fledged personalities. Guy Pearce excels as Monty, the slightly dusty but still randy playboy who becomes Mildred's primary distraction from her business and family duties. One of the flaws of the 1945 film is the lack of credibility in Mildred and Monty's affair; Crawford seems to tower over louche, lounge-lizardy Zachary Scott and often seems like she's going to use him as a toothpick rather than walk down the aisle with him. Winslet and Pearce are a far more believable pairing, cooking up considerably steamier love scenes than Crawford and Scott could ever have played.
9 p.m. Sundays through April 10 on HBO (for complete schedule, visit www.hbo.com)
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