Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 10, 2012)
Probably best known via the 1945 film adaptation with Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce gets another cinematic telling via a 2011 HBO mini-series. This Blu-ray set includes all five episodes, which I’ll discuss in order. The synopses come straight from the set’s packaging.
Part One: “After throwing her husband Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne) out of the house, a young mother named Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) tries to find suitable work in Depression-era California.”
If you expect a slam-bang experience here, you won’t find it. The biggest excitement comes when Mildred gets a job at a diner; maybe it’s just the former waiter in me, but the sight of Mildred’s stressful first day set me on edge!
Despite a lack of dynamic events, “Part One” provides an interesting launch to the mini-series. Mildred provides an unusual character, one toward whom we want to feel sympathy but whose stubborn pride makes it somewhat tough to embrace. Winslet doesn’t attempt to endear herself to us, and that’s a good choice; despite her dodgy American accent, Winslet develops an intriguing character with obvious strengths and flaws.
One other intriguing decision: while Winslet plays Mildred in a fairly naturalistic manner, many of the other actors read their roles in a stereotypical 1930s manner. This creates a contrast that sets Mildred apart from the others and makes her feel more modern. I’ll be curious to see where this style goes in future episodes.
Part Two: “With her pie side-business thriving, Mildred sets in motion a plan to start a business for herself and falls for a handsome stranger named Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce).”
Has there ever been a more awful cinematic child than daughter Veda (Morgan Turner)? Probably, but the kid’s still really annoying, as she comes across with an aggravating sense of entitlement and pretension. When Mildred bows to the kid’s attitudes – which is pretty much always - I wanted to slap her around, too.
At least Part Two plays other elements for a greater sense of heart, especially when we see the formal split between Mildred and Bert. I like that the series doesn’t portray Bert as a cartoon cad; sure, his infidelity prompted the couple’s split, but we can tell that was a symptom, not a cause, and I’m happy the episode allows him a sense of kindness and dignity.
Part Two advances the overall narrative well, though the movements sometimes feel a bit forced. The manner in which Mildred goes from lowly waitress to burgeoning restauranteer seem rather convenient, as she leaps through the steps with a moderately unrealistic sense of ease. Still, we don’t really don’t want to be stuck with a plodding collection of nuts and bolts scenes, so I can live with this.
Part Three: “In the wake of a tragedy, Mildred opens her new restaurant and reconnects with Monty, whose lethargy tests the bonds between Mildred and Veda.
The best part of the episode? When Veda cries after the piano teacher berates her. The worst part? When it turns out these are tears of joy because she knows he sees true talent in her.
No, I still don’t like Veda, and nothing here makes her more sympathetic. Indeed, she becomes more and more horrible as the episode progresses. If tragedy had to strike the Pierce family, why couldn’t awful Veda have been the one to go?
Probably the most enjoyable segment comes from the opening of Mildred’s restaurant. Again, this might be the former waiter in me, but it’s borderline thrilling to see the place get off to such a great start, and the urgency reminds me of the good and bad that comes with the job.
Otherwise, the most significant element comes from Mildred’s deepening romance with Monty, but that’s only a minor diversion. It’s so obvious that Monty’s just a superficial cad that it seems unlikely the situation will go anywhere positive.
Part Four: “Mildred opens a profitable new restaurant, but her good fortune is tempered by Veda’s (Evan Rachel Wood) manipulation of a smitten society bachelor and his wealthy family.”
The synopsis doesn’t make it clear, but “Part Four” takes place a few years after the events in the first three episodes; that’s why you see a new actress listed for Veda. Is this one more likable? No – she’s still the same self-centered, obnoxious brat she was as a kid.
The more I watch of the series, though, the more I blame Mildred for her daughter’s horrible qualities. The show depicts Mildred’s enabling nature in a subtle way but it’s there, and it’s an interesting depiction of the mother/daughter dynamic. Normally when we see a mother with unwavering support of/belief in a child, there’s a happy ending, as we view the joy between the pair when all the hard work pays off.
While we still have an episode to go, I can’t imagine a true happy ending here – and I sure hope we don’t get one, as a big, smiley finale would be inappropriate for this tale of dysfunctional family relationships. As much as I loathe Veda – and am starting to dislike Mildred for her misguided sense of support for her awful child – I don’t want the proverbial bright, shiny bow at the end, for this just isn’t that kind of story.
Part Four makes Mildred’s inability to see Veda clearly more overt – especially when friends warn her – but it still doesn’t beat us over the head. It grows the relationship in a natural manner that allows things to progress well.
Kinda hoping Veda gets hit by a bus in Part Five, though!
Part Five: “As Veda’s singing career takes off, Mildred’s attempts to reconcile with her estranged daughter finally pay off, though at a painful price.”
Remember how I mentioned the subtle way the series informed Mildred of her own daughter’s unpleasant nature? That theme becomes much more blunt when Veda’s voice teacher (Ronald Guttman) pulls no punches in his discussion of the girl as a “snake” and other unflattering terms.
Of course, the single-minded Mildred refuses to take this lesson to heart, and she becomes more and more frustrating. Earlier in the series, we rooted for her to succeed as a single mother in the Depression, but now we just want to bop her over the head with a brick.
As much as Mildred’s obsession with her daughter drives me nuts, I can’t claim it’s not believable. Blood is thicker than water, as they say, and Mildred wouldn’t be the first parent to overlook – and deny - her child’s terrible flaws.
Mildred’s lack of good character judgment actually helps make the series more interesting. She’s such a strong personality in so many ways – her achievements in business are remarkable – so the fact that she suffers from such a prominent fatal flaw keeps the story from becoming nothing more than a banal “underdog survival” tale.
This means the program delivers a great deal of viewer frustration, but it’s still a compelling character piece. After all, if we only got stories that focused on logical personalities, it’d get pretty dull. Mildred Pierce investigates a flawed family and occasionally turns into melodrama, but it’s usually an involving, compelling tale.