The new five-part Mildred Pierce mini-series, starring Kate Winslet and directed by Todd Haynes, is very different from the 1945 weepie classic that earned Joan Crawford an Oscar. Haynes went back to the source material James M. Cain's 1941 novel and combined it with the fondness for extravagant melodrama he's displayed in his own feature films, such as 2002's Far From Heaven.
Winslet stars as Mildred, a Depression-era dame waiting tables in California to make a living for herself and her family. Her husband leaves, her youngest daughter dies, and she gives all her love to daughter Veda (who's played as a child by Morgan Turner but by the fourth hour morphs into Evan Rachel Wood). Veda is, even as a little girl, an ambitious, ungrateful snob who sneers at her mother's hard labor. The crucial challenge whether it's the novel, movie, or HBO miniseries is to make Mildred's sacrifices for Veda seem noble, not pathetic.
Crawford did it by raising her anguished mother-love to grand proportions. Winslet scales down Mildred's suffering to a modulated series of pained looks that convey heartbreak and bafflement at her daughter's casual cruelty. It's a subtle performance, but it can't quite prevent a modern viewer from thinking Mildred is something of a masochistic sap, especially when we get to hour 5's big reveal of Veda's worst sin.
By contrast, Wood has no choice but to play Veda like an only slightly less florid version of her Queen Sophie-Anne on True Blood: Veda is such a grasping, amoral shrew, it's wisest to go over the top and hope for the best. Landing squarely between Winslet and Wood are Guy Pearce as Mildred's wastrel playboy lover and James LeGros as her wily business adviser. Tucked into smaller roles that keep their lights dimmed are recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham as Mildred's true-blue pals.
Haynes shoots Mildred Pierce with a visual palette of soft yellows and greens; the movie unfurls like a California dream too slowly for some viewers, I'll bet. By wisely reinserting the Depression details that were dropped in the glossy Michael Curtiz-directed 1945 version, this Pierce has a metaphorical timeliness that mirrors our current tough economic period. It also makes Veda an opera singer, an element the Crawford picture ignored opera was author Cain's obsession, something shoehorned into the hardboiled prose of his novel. Here, Haynes turns Veda's Los Angeles Philharmonic debut into a camp triumph: Wood overemotes (and lip-synchs) grandly, as the camera pans porten- tously across Winslet's proud but tired face. If you buy the overwrought emotions so ornately expressed, you'll buy this TV movie's conviction. I was occasionally skeptical, but sold by the terrific performances. B+