HBO // 2011 // 344 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // December 30th, 2011
Having it all would cost her everything.
Resurrecting the character of Mildred Pierce makes sense right now given the current state of unemployment and economic uncertainty. In the original novel from 1941 and the subsequent campy Joan Crawford flick of 1945, the plucky single mom was an icon of how to get out of the Great Depression of the '30s using only apron strings and plenty of moxie. She was a survivor of divorce, and had a steely determination that would not let anything stop her from providing a better life for her children and the man she loved. Mildred was the Mother Courage of her era, a message to America to keep on swinging no matter what came our way.
In 1930s Glendale, California middle-class housewife Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet, Titanic) attempts to maintain her and her family's social position during the Great Depression. She is left by a cheating spouse, and realizes she has to find a way to support her two daughters on her own. Mildred has no skills other than she makes amazing pies, and soon finds herself as a waitress in a diner. Eventually she finds success with her own empire of restaurants, but there are many sacrifices along the way to be made. What price ultimately will she pay to keep her oldest daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen) in the life she is accustomed to? And what of her new love Monty (Guy Pearce, Memento) who himself has fallen on hard financial times? Mildred soon learns that here be monsters, and perhaps the worst is her hardened heart that will be tested time and again before it is all over.
It seems this telling of the tale would like to stick closely to the James M. Cain novel rather than remaking the Michael Curtiz film that was Crawford's vehicle. Most of the script follows the source material so closely that almost all of the dialogue comes straight from the book. It changes everything from glitzy noir to a grounded portrait of struggle. This is an epic of sublimation, because what is most moving about Mildred Pierce is watching the titular character swallow every emotion that comes her way. A tragic death is immediately followed by a business triumph, and you hardly can tell which has more impact on the stoic woman at the center of the maelstorm. Her oldest daughter Veda is all unbridled passion, but Mildred is a stiff-jawed rock of stoney resolve. At the core of the story is the struggle of the middle class to decide where they fall, towards the rich or more towards the poor in culture and manners. What director Todd Haynes does is return Mildred Pierce to what it truly was on the written page, and it makes it look handsome at the same time. Color becomes character as if to rally against the tyranny of the black and white of the first film.
This is a natural fit for an actress like Kate Winslet, and it is her show from start to finish. She uses her earthy sensuousness give Mildred a sense of grounded grace. It is a full 180 degree turn from where Joan Crawford took the character, although they both share the same toughness at times. But where Crawford was all fireworks and explosions, Winslet is all silent screams and inner raging seas that only threaten to come out. Her costars carry their weight well, too, including a "gone to seed" performance by Guy Pearce, as well as a barely recognizable Mare Winningham (St. Elmo's Fire) popping up portraying a head waitress. Everybody follows Winslet's lead save for Evan Rachel Wood who has the character that has to be more over the top and monstrous to capture the daughter of the book.
This collector's set includes two DVDs and two Blu-rays with all five episodes spread out over each pair. Extras include two great commentaries over installments three and five of the miniseries. The discussion provides great detail from director Todd Haynes and his co-writer and production designer. Exclusively on the Blu-rays are videotaped interviews with Haynes discussing each installment in five or six minute bursts. The 1.78:1 transfers are great on both formats, although the series was constructed to be shown in 1080p high definition. You will see far greater detail and more lush colors and shading with the Blu-ray discs. It's a handsomely filmed project, so it is wonderful to experience it on Blu-ray. The sound is solid on both as well, although the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is definitely a cut above like the visuals.
This 2011 reinvention of Mildred Pierce serves to reunite the character with her literary roots. Todd Haynes delivers an interesting and moving six hours which affords him the luxury to develop an intimate character portrait. Of course, without a great actress like Kate Winslet, he would have never been able to pace this marathon quite so well. It's all a bitter pill, because so much of Mildred's struggles are now our own again as the economy lurches along with historically high unemployment and little growth. If you're up to it, the miniseries is a great work that offers many rewards. It's rare to see a dramatic project like this take its time, breathe, and commit to the full experience. This visualization of the novel serves to recreate Mildred page by page.
Guilty of making Mildred Pierce once again literary.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* Spanish (Castilian)
Running Time: 344 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Copy