Friday, March 25, 2011

Mildred Pierce 
A Woman's Search For A Connection With Her Daughter

Evan Rachel Wood (left) as Veda and Kate Winslet in the title role in  "Mildred Pierce", directed by Todd Haynes.  The first two parts of the five-and a half-hour film show this Sunday night on HBO.  
Andrew Schwartz/HBO

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Friday, March 25, 2011

My sincere apologies to the good people at HBO, for they had in fact sent images for this review, but of course my packed e-mail box had a bout of indigestion.  Thanks again, kind people at HBO, for sending and resending these.  You know who you are.   

Fasten your seat belts and buckle up for the majestic and beautiful "Mildred Pierce", Todd Haynes' long-form film for television based on James M. Cain's classic 1941 novel.

The new "Mildred Pierce" (the first two parts premiere on Sunday night beginning at 9pm Eastern on HBO) departs markedly from Michael Curtiz's 1945 big-screen drama starring Joan Crawford in her Oscar-winning title role.  Mr. Haynes' film strips out the noir characteristics of its forerunner, employing nuance, deliberation and a touch of the cerebral, staying loyal to the mother-daughter relationship at the core of Mr. Cain's novel.

Shot in 60mm and set in Glendale, California during the Depression of 1931, barely eleven years after the Suffrage movement won women the right to vote, "Mildred Pierce" stars Kate Winslet at the height of her acting powers as the title character.  In part one of this five-hour, 38 minute-film, Mildred gets a job as a waitress so as to later establish herself in the food business.  By then Mildred will have ejected her philandering husband Bert (Brían F. O'Byrne) from her home.  In the severely poor economic climate of Hoover's 1930s Bert's Pierce Homes business goes under in part due to the machinations of his business partner Wally (James LeGros).

Mildred's two daughters are sprightly, energetic beings.  The elder daughter, Veda, is a precocious, bratty primadonna who doesn't let her mother's transgressions or flaws escape notice or editorializing.  Trapped, Mildred seeks the approval and love of her elder daughter, doing so in ways that see her act out with men.  Mildred has passions and is complex, but the love she makes is only a temporary blindness from the confusion of roles with her daughter -- roles that feel as if they are swapped like a Freaky Friday in Glendale.  Mildred is often the child and Veda the parent.  Throughout the five-hour-plus film, a masterwork, it feels as if Mildred is fighting herself. 

Parts two, three, four and five bring various ups and downs for Mildred Pierce as she confronts reliable and unreliable people in her life.  Mildred's life is an abiding roller-coaster search for love -- not of the men who lust after and comment on her body but of the one person she has competed with forever. 

With pride, desperation and commitment defining her, Mildred Pierce is given full-blooded life by Ms. Winslet, who combines intelligence, a solid set of principles for Mildred and a refreshing power and openness barely sublimating the homoerotic strain underlying Mildred's need for her daughter's attention, respect and affection.  Ms. Winslet has always delved deep into the mind and the physicality of her characters ("Hideous Kinky", "Little Children", "The Reader") and does so again here, particularly in the middle and latter installments of Mr. Haynes' film. 

To that end "Mildred Pierce" pulses with strong, steamy eroticism that will arouse the most deadened of souls.  The sex scenes aren't showy, gratuitous, prurient or stylized but are presented naturally, in an unbridled, adult way consonant with Mildred's emotional and physiological needs.  The scenes are thoughtful, sensual, passionate and real.  In a remarkably well-acted scene of an amorous dance we see Ms. Winslet thinking her character through -- it's beautifully, amazingly written all over her face -- as a lover tries to separate her from her light-green party dress in part three.

In many ways Kate Winslet is absolutely perfect for Mr. Haynes' film: an outsider in her own sense -- she's not a typical "Hollywood" actress nor is she thought of as the anatomical waif or fashion-model standard Tinseltown often desires.  Ms. Winslet, bless her heart, is her own natural woman and proudly celebrates that fact, with a voluptuous body type she doesn't hide from the camera.  I scoff to myself that, aside from the obvious reasons (including contractual) why many American actresses don't bare their naked bodies, Hollywood actresses with the more "perfect" bodies in films in scenes during and after sex, are often covering up their supposed perfections in bed. 

In reality these actresses wouldn't be covered up but for, of course, the millions of future viewers and more immediately the dozens and dozens of male crew members surrounding the actresses during the filming of such sex scenes.  Ms. Winslet doesn't hesitate to disrobe, not as titillation or cheap, immature seduction, but in the guise of an authentic stamp of a character who expresses and searches for complete expression.  This is true of all of her similar-themed work on the big screen.

"Mildred Pierce" director Todd Haynes, during a Q&A for the HBO film last night in San Francisco.  Omar P.L. Moore

At the same time however, Ms. Winslet is also classical -- a throwback to some of the demure but wise actresses of the 1940s: explosive yet quietly sensual -- though Ms. Winslet is more overtly so as she portrays her characters' feelings and physical explorations.

If it makes sense, Mildred may be something of a "reverse child": a parent seeking and chasing the approval of her daughter.  She can't separate from Veda as she matures -- and matures not always to Mildred's likings, expectations or desired specifications. 

A perpetual outsider to her daughter, to men and to much of a troubled society at large, the solitary Mildred makes her way through a tough life, accessing the pleasures and pitfalls of her very existence.  Mildred has love, she has regrets, but she doesn't have the all-important validation that makes her complete and self-satisfied.

"Mildred Pierce", which transpires over a nine-year period through to 1940 over its five part-odyssey, is directed with keen observance by Mr. Haynes, who brings his independent sensibilities and signature styles to this epic produced by long-time collaborator Christine Vachon.  Mr. Haynes references several of his films in "Mildred Pierce", including his 1990s television film "Dottie Gets Spanked", which played with spanking as a sadomasochistic delight.  The moment appears during an unmistakable scene in part two of "Pierce".  There is dialogue in part two that screams wink-wink spank-spank from the director.  Despite the intensity, "Mildred Pierce" is often a very funny drama and the language and texture of the film is often sunny.

The material written for television by Mr. Haynes and Jon Raymond is incisive and meticulous.  Mr. Haynes has always fashioned films that celebrate or chronicle the plight, power and passion of the outsider, the sexually alive or identifiably stereotyped, or socially maligned "other".  Whether in "Poison" or "Safe" (the latter of which this latest creation has a kinship because of the suburban malaise and suffocation Mildred seems unable to shake), or in films like "Far From Heaven", whose Sirkian flourishes aren't evident here but whose outsider status most definitely remains.  There's also an identity shifting that borrows from Mr. Haynes' 2007 film "I'm Not There" as the childlike Mildred (naïve and always a step behind the rest of the characters) collides with the Mildred whose adult passions are unrestrained and decisive.

Aside from Ms. Winslet's fine work (her best along with her work in "Little Children", "Revolutionary Road" and "The Reader",) there are a slew of excellent supporting performances especially from Mr. O'Byrne, a great Tony-winning New York stage actor (also in such films as "Brooklyn's Finest" and "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead"), Mare Winningham as Ida, a waitress who becomes a good friend to Mildred, Mr. LeGros as the ne'er-do-well Wally, and Guy Pearce as the lazy, shiftless leach Monty Beregon.

Also brilliant is Evan Rachel Wood, a scene-stealer in parts four and five as the older Veda.  Ms. Wood is strong, powerful and absolutely terrific as a single-minded and emboldened enfant terrible, in some of the best acting she's ever done.  Ms. Wood challenged Holly Hunter in "Thirteen" and Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler" as the lovelorn, estranged daughter to both actors, and she gives as good as she gets here as a rival to Ms. Winslet's Mildred.

Kate Winslet as Mildred Pierce and Brian F. O'Byrne as Bert Pierce in "Mildred Pierce".  Andrew Schwartz/HBO

The scenes between Ms. Winslet and Ms. Wood (and Ms. Winslet and the terrific Morgan Turner as younger Veda) crackle with tension and heat.  You can't suppress the deep anger you feel when Veda back-talks, insults and slaps her mother.  You want Mildred to do something more about it as a parent, but you are left with your anger.  This is precisely the spirit and state of flux in which Mr. Cain and Mr. Haynes want you to wallow and foment.  It's devilishly effective.  You want and desire the release of the high tension as much as these charged characters do. 

Mildred is an incomplete parent because she doesn't have the approval of Veda to have the authority over her.  There's an energy and unresolved sexual tension in these exchanges, in the audacity of a daughter to combat her mother and meet her slap for slap.  The release comes in the complex entanglements Mildred shares with the men in her life, and that fire and anger is displaced in the erotic scenes Mr. Haynes shoots so artfully and tastefully.

The production of "Mildred Pierce" is superb, with Mr. Haynes' frequent cinematographer Ed Lachman lensing a colorful but restrained view of the title character and her suburban entanglements.  Using the influences and techniques of renowned photographer and artist Saul Leiter and the style of Fassbender (whom Mr. Haynes greatly admires), much of "Mildred Pierce" is shot through glass with reframed and truncated views of the title character, sometimes obscured by smoked glass, dirt, rain and other objects.  There's a camera obscura effect as well (younger Veda references the term at one point), the refracting of image confining and framing Mildred in a closed, closeted manner.  "Mildred Pierce" is carefully calibrated at every moment, and marvelously.

The glassy effect of the windows and the multiple mirrors further alienates Mildred from her daughter, and perhaps even from herself.  We always feel that Mildred is being watched, whether by Veda or by another observer.  The voyeurism at play shows that Mildred doesn't get a moment's peace and is a metaphor for the uneasiness she feels as she seeks the unattainable affections of Veda, whom in truth loves Mildred but only from a distance.  Mildred isn't a put-upon, despairing or vulnerable woman but her pursuit of this completeness sometimes leaves her naked.

Mr. Haynes captures the financial struggles of the 1930s and the unmistakable economic crises of the present-day pulls us in, giving us another identifiable character to project onto, making the film very relevant and timely.  Carter Burwell's music is a fine accompaniment and Ann Roth's natty costumes capture the era wonderfully.  The class distinctions of "Mildred Pierce" are obvious, and the fissures within the middle class are deeply felt in the Pierce household, with Veda reminding Mildred of her monetary limitations and status.  Mildred hides her own shames and regrets but these surface at inopportune times, always observed by her eagle-eyed tormentor.

On the big screen "Mildred Pierce" is a beautiful, strikingly rich film, and on television it plays like a film too.  Sure, some of the effect of the larger screen presence is lost, but the impact of the story, particularly the central tug between Mildred and Veda remains.  "Mildred Pierce" is one of the best films of the year, but it deserves a nationwide theatrical presentation.  Most Americans don't have HBO and I'd bet that even in these financially challenging times more than a few would be willing to part with some ducats to watch Mr. Haynes epic.  "Mildred Pierce" is worthy of many awards, and whether Emmys or otherwise, any such accolades are well-deserved.

With: Melissa Leo, Richard Easton, Halley Feiffer, Marin Ireland, Murphy Guyer.

"Mildred Pierce" would presumably be given a TV-MA rating.  It is for adults and contains language, violence, and strong sexual content.  The film's running time is five hours and 38 minutes.  Episodes one and two premiere on HBO on Sunday, beginning at 9pm Eastern U.S. and are repeated during early April on HBO and HBO2.  Episode three debuts on HBO on April 3 and is repeated throughout April on HBO and HBO2.  Episodes four and five debut on HBO on April 10 and are repeated throughout April on HBO and HBO2.  Each new episode premieres at approximately 9pm Eastern on Sundays.

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