James M. Cain
Everything or Nothing: Mildred Pierce (2011)
If there is one thing that annoys me to no end, it is when people automatically, almost seemingly impulsive write off any film or movie that happens to be an adaptation of a book. “The book is always better than the movie.” ”Look at all the stuff the movie left out!” “They didn’t do so and so like the author.” However, I implore them with, “Accept the film as its own entity!” The thing they should realize is, film is a different medium. And with that medium, you have a lot of obstacles: creative input and running time, primarily. What audiences often look for are transliterations of their favorite books, something they will never get unless they want to sit for several hours in a theater. That will also never happen unless you find a production team willing to put that much effort into translating every scene and every piece of dialogue to the screen. Not for a theatrical feature at least. So, here I would like to commend the mini-series format! The format, which is roomier than a feature film but shorter than a series, is almost perfect for those purists unsatisfied with theatrical adaptations. (Also, people with patience.) Perhaps the most literal transliteration I have ever seen (and, granted, I have not seen many) is Todd Hayne’s Mildred Pierce, based on the novel by James M. Cain. This is the most thorough adaptation of a novel I have ever seen, using dialog verbatim from Cain’s novel and including nearly every scene from the novel. Clocking in at five episodes and almost five and a half hours, it is completely worth your time. Did I mention that Kate Winslet is superb in it?
James M. Cain, whose novels inspired the term noir and were themselves adapted as film noirs, was popular for writing respected hard boiled novels. From The Postman Always Rings Twice to Double Indemnity (whose screenplay would be written by fellow hardboiler Raymond Chandler), Cain knew exactly how to portray moral ambiguity and social class hypocrisies. With Mildred Pierce (published after Postman and before Indemnity), it is a bit of a different turn for Cain. No gangsters. No overt double crossing, in the noir sense. And no first person narrative. Nevertheless, Cain’s portrayal of a divorcee during the Depression trying to attain success and keep her prodigal daughter happy was a success, and was adapted into a film in 1945 by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), and featured an Academy Award-winning performance by Joan Crawford as the titular character.
Jump sixty-seven years later, and in the place of Crawford is Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet, playing the strong, but somewhat damaged Mildred Pierce. In the first episode, in her cozy California home during the Great Depression, she throws her husband out of the house and is thus left alone to care for her two children, the contemptible Veda (Morgan Turner) and the precious Moiré/Ray. Mildred, now on her own, struggles with the dignity of taking a job as a waitress just to keep her girls happy. And, oh, the men. Handsome she is, and it would not be fair to call her promiscuous, but with her newly garnered title of “grass widow”, she can now do as she pleases. She is liberated, and her choices regarding whom she meets, which honestly are not very many, are not met with usually soap opera-esque judgment of neighbors. The story goes on, as Mildred raises her two girls, and in the meantime, she meets Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), she opens up her own restaurant, extends it as a chain, and concentrates her love on her dear Veda.
Mildred Pierce, as glorious as it can be, is work to watch, if only for its luxurious pacing. Its supine narrative style makes sense, given the subject matter. Really, how exciting can you really make a character study about a woman struggling and (kind of) overcoming the economic perils during the Depression, all the while dealing with her decidedly pretentious daughter? For what it is worth, it is handled with grace and style. Though there are moments torpid in style that may irk you, it allows the viewer to admire and observe the precision that both Haynes and Winslet have used when creating the character of Mildred Pierce. The series is a study of something not to be studied: a woman doing what she needs to do to get by. It may be the most gracious way of Haynes saying that women can be the best fighters, and will do anything for their children, and thus it is unnecessary and ultimately fruitless to overanalyze their motivations. (That, however, does not completely stop Haynes entirely. On the Blu-ray box set’s special features, each episode has a 4 minute heavy analysis of the episode and the characters.)
Even with the most prudish of viewer, it is hard to be disappointed by HBO’s attention to detail. Even with the distasteful Rome, one cannot deny how gorgeous, detailed, and designed the series was. (It was also incredibly expensive.) For Mildred Pierce, we are transported to late 1930’s – early 1940’s California. Not the patent California of most period pieces, so bright and so obviously manufactured, but a pleasantly natural look, as if the audience were really there. The costume design is gorgeous, the set design evokes the time period perfectly, and the look of the series is stunning. The cinematography has a sunny yellow about it that is reminiscent of the area. The picture is not drenched in browns and yellows, but it fits the time period and the setting of the series, and, like the general setting of the series, evokes a perfect feeling for the series. The cinematography, though, is the most marvelous thing about it. There is nary a scene that does not look good or is not expertly constructed, by both director Haynes and cinematographer Edward Lachman (who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Haynes’ Sirkian Far From Heaven). If it is drenched, it is drenched in the period, feeling completely naturalistic with the rest of the mise-en-scene.
Kate Winslet is perfection in the role. Without her, Mildred Pierce simply would not be as good as it is. Appearing in every single scene of the series, she plays the character with all of her facets, while still allowing Mildred to be enigmatic. Appearing in every scene in something is a lot of work, and it may call into question as to whether the story is told subjectively from Mildred’s point of view. On the contrary, much of the story is told omnisciently, with the camera looking at her often from others’ perspective. It may seem that the series is just as much about the perception of Mildred from the other people in her life as it is about Mildred herself. Winslet takes on the role, exposing the pathos and sensitivity of Mildred, as well as the character’s strength and survival mentality. Though, the performance does not look effortless. It really should not look that way. It should look like a woman doing what she can to provide for her family, as well as providing for herself. That being said, Winslet is, at times, beautifully restrained in her technique, never falling prey to overacting. She is the perfect Mildred Pierce, and embodies everything the character stands for.
Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood both play Veda, the former playing Veda as a child and the latter playing Veda as an “adult”. Veda is, in a word, a complete bitch. Every line is intentionally play acted with a stagey, Lawrence Olivier kind of tone, as if the child had memorized it from a script. Every apology, every word of admiration, and even every argument has such pretension, it can drive one insane. One gets the impression that young Veda is preparing for an audition worthy of Joan Crawford or Ann Blyth. Although you want to slap her every time you see her on screen, it is a great performance nonetheless. Both actresses are able to hone their bitchiness perfectly for the role.
The supporting cast is just as excellent, with Guy Pearce as Mildred’s main beau, Melissa Leo as Mildred’s best friend, and Mare Winningham as Mildred’s boss as her diner job. The acting is the highlight of the entire series, with each role carefully constructed to fit the time and era without feeling like something stagey or overacted. The performances are what make the series so enthralling, every minute of the way.
The relationship dynamic between Mildred and Veda is critical to the entire series. It is even more important than the dynamic between Mildred and her men. Veda is the ungrateful, prodigal daughter, almost never understanding the struggles her mother goes through to get what she wants. Director Haynes notes that the relationship is comparable to that of unrequited love. Mildred wants to do anything and everything for her daughter and will be loyal to her regardless of the terrible abuse from her daughter. The stupid, dogged loyalty is something that many people experience, both through the mediums of parenting as well as romantic relationships. She is willing to sacrifice everything, and yet get nothing in return.
Mildred Pierce is the closest thing anyone will ever get to a transliteration of any novel. However, as surprising and refreshing as that is, the lead performances are what make the series so incredible. Kate Winslet is at her best playing Mildred, showing her off as both vulnerable and strong. Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood portray Veda as the archetypal bitch, and so very well. Their clashing and individual lives intertwining like barbed wire makes the final episodes soapy and delicious. Though the pacing is slow at times, it is arguably one of the best book to screen adaptations ever. Astounding in every sense of the word, Mildred Pierce delivers.