Mildred Pierce: A tale of unrequited love

Dawn Fraser (The Philippine Star) - June 2, 2011 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Passionate love affairs, broken families, single mothers with out-of-control teens — a rough description of HBO’s latest mini-series, Mildred Pierce, reads like a digest from a modern day soap opera. Yet this painstakingly faithful adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel is not set in the present, but in Depression-Era Southern California.

The striking similarities between the tumultuous period of the 1930s and the financial troubles of our own time were what initially inspired writer-director Todd Haynes to revisit the novel in mini-series form. The book had already been adapted once, in Michael Curtiz’s classic 1945 film starring Joan Crawford. But in the process of courting box-office success and placating the social mores and strict censorship code of the powerful studios of that time, the film that emerged bore little resemblance to the original novel.

Haynes’ adaptation takes the opposite route. Gone are the inserted Hollywood film noir elements, the murder mystery, femme fatales and gunfights. Instead, the series returns to the heart of the novel: a tale of unrequited love. The lover in question is Mildred, but the object of her affections is not any of the men in her life, not her ex-husband Bert, not her shifty business associate Wally, nor her decorative playboy boyfriend Monty. No, all these men play a merely ancillary role in Mildred’s life. Mildred’s heart belongs to only one person, her daughter, Veda.

It is for Veda that Mildred (Kate Winslet) abandons her middle-class aversion to working outside the home to take a job as a waitress. It is for Veda that she later parlays that experience to build a successful restaurant business bolstered by her delicious pies and unrelenting work ethic. It is for Veda that she eventually sabotages that business, overspending her income to provide her daughter with progressively more extravagant gifts in an attempt to buy her love. For Veda, Mildred would sacrifice everything, though her daughter gives her little in return.

Evan Rachel Wood as Veda

On the flip side, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood) bears the brunt of her mother’s overwhelming expectations and suffocating affection. A wunderkind with aspirations of leaving her banal middle-class existence behind, Veda affects a nobility that runs only skin-deep. Her fine words and aristocratic manner are but a thin veneer covering the brittleness of her character.

Into this claustrophobic family drama steps Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce). He is everything that Mildred is not — blue-blooded, fun-loving, charismatic and lazy. She falls for him instantly. Their passionate and highly erotic affair becomes an escape for Mildred. She is irresponsible and impulsive, living in the moment and putting her fears and worries regarding her daughter and fledgling business aside, if only briefly. Monty finds a real kinship in Veda. He treats her not as a perpetual child, as Mildred sees her, but instead as an equal.

It is in the spectacular destruction of these relationships that Mildred Pierce occasionally crosses the line into melodrama. The series is more successful in its quieter moments. One scene where a desperate Mildred hugs her daughter from behind as Veda visibly shudders at her mother’s touch is particularly moving. The story of the drama is contained in just that one scene, the yearning mother and the chafing child.

The decision to adapt Mildred Pierce as a mini-series rather than as a film affords the series time. Characters that were written out of the 1945 version or otherwise marginalized due to time constraints are here allowed to be explored more fully. Mare Winningham’s Ida is a great example of this. Whereas in the film, Ida is given a few snarky lines here and there, in the mini-series she is fleshed out as a nuanced and eminently likable character. On the other hand, the pacing does sometimes suffer due to the long, drawn-out nature of a mini-series as opposed to a shorter film.

Taking on the role that resuscitated Joan Crawford’s flagging career and won her an Academy Award for Best Actress takes a certain amount of guts. Winslet has that in spades, reinterpreting Mildred not as a faultless feminine ideal of a heroine, but as a real, earthy woman, warts and all. Unlike Crawford’s perfectly coiffed and turned-out Mildred, Winslet’s Mildred is a little messy, at times even matronly, wearing ill-fitting shoes that make her feet bleed as she walks the streets of ’30s L.A. looking for a job. In the film version, Crawford’s Mildred never breaks a sweat, becoming an adept waitress apparently overnight. Winslet’s Mildred works hard for everything, practicing her waitressing maneuvers at home when her daughter is asleep, enduring the overt sexual innuendos of her customers and the frenzied pace of the diner. Winslet brings a tactile physicality to the role in every scene, further cementing the series not in some Hollywood dream of an ideal working woman, but in the reality of the struggles of a single mother raising children on her own.

Guy Pearce as Monty Beragon

Wood’s role is perhaps the hardest to play without going completely over-the-top, and she manages well, considering the technical and dramatic challenges she faced. Veda sings opera in multiple languages over the course of the series, is an expert pianist, and stars in the climax of the mini-series in a scene which has to be seen to be believed. Wood carries all this off and makes it appear natural, which is no small feat.

I asked Wood how she would compare her character in Mildred Pierce to another HBO villainess she plays on the hit series, True Blood: “(Regarding the upcoming fourth season) I am coming back, and I think people are going to be really surprised to see what happens. At least Queen Sophie-Anne is funny and charming. She has a little more fun in life. Veda is just cold. Colder than a dead vampire.”

Pearce’s Monty Beragon is a notable improvement over the film version, oozing sexual chemistry with Winslet and stealing several scenes. His Monty is all dashing allure and easy charm. The mini-series’ love scenes are plentiful and daring, as befitting an HBO production.

The first two parts of Mildred Pierce premieres June 9 at 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. on HBO/HBO HD, with new episodes premiering every Thursday at 9 p.m.

(Dawn Fraser is a Long Island, New York-based Filipino-American writer and STAR correspondent).

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