I started watching Mildred Pierce on HBO a few weeks ago and only finished it last evening. It is a long and gruesome production, ticking solemnly by-- very much as I imagine the dirty thirties did--- with nowhere to go and little money to spend things on ( to paraphrase Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird). Adapted from the James Cain novel--- which I vaguely remember reading in the insurmountable pile of books I read in high school and uni. ---it focuses on an ambitious woman in an unambitious time.
Mildred is a talented cook with a resolute spirit and more than a healthy dose of pride ( which is almost interpreted as snobbery in certain situations). When she learns her husband is having an affair, she kicks him out and falls prey as the victim of unpaid scandal. Not so long ago, no, but still in the age where women separated from their husbands had little chance at livelihood--- less of a chance during a country-wide depression.
Mildred scrapes by to raise her two daughters: the more formidable being the ghastly Veda, a snake-like red-head who is always ashamed of her mother, her circumstances and holds a general disdain for anything in her path. Veda's somewhat of a musical prodigy and Mildred worships her as a younger version of herself and does everything she can to ensure her happiness and opportunity.
A chance job as a waitress brings out Mildred's entrepreneurial side and soon Mildred is selling pies, opening chicken and waffle restaurants and carving a name and future for herself.
Veda is becoming more and more abhorrent and nothing that her resourceful and smart mother does is nearly good enough.
Mildred is a sensual and smart woman and has a few relationships that seem questionable in the still guarded and moral society of 1930s America. The most notable of these is with a dashing, be-moustached Monty: who can only afford to keep electricity in one wing of his sadly dust-gathered mansion. Mildred also retains a passable relationship with her first husband and with a friend and financial advisor named Wally.
As Veda grows older, Mildred, too, becomes prey to her daughter's vicious and manipulative personality. Coiled in her own pride and love and blinded by her insistence that Veda is just a stern and ambitious woman like herself, Mildred fails to see what the audience and nearly every other character in the miniseries does: that the central tragedy of the tale his Mildred's steadfast love for her daughter.
An almost surreal confrontation between Mildred and Veda is backed by a playfully eerie piano tune: weaving a carousel of melody that brings to light the almost vaudeville-esque antics of Veda and her puppetry of all around her: from her mother to Monty, the almost-step father she always held a disturbing attachment to.
What perhaps is most interesting about the film is how the camera lens shows but part of the unravelling of each scene. We are kept in periphery: never seeing the full picture. You'll catch glimpses of characters through slices of open windows, in the reflection of a doorframe they pass by, behind a passing car.... you are an established outsider, looking into this strange and well-formulated world.
As Veda's musicality progresses and upon discovery of her ultra talent as a bonafide coloratura, so does music play into the grand opus of the tale. I enjoyed the musical selection and thought Evan Rachel Wood did a passable job at lip synching the words from the beautiful voice cast as her double. The well-known standard, "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows", becomes a potent theme song for the eponymous character and her stumbles and strifes through 1930s California.
The locations were beautifully scouted and expertly filmed. The interiors were meticulously detailed and everything seemed a perfect recreation of the past. The costume changes were extensive (especially for Winslet and for the dozens and dozens of extras) and I fell in love with a vintage style that seems to be creeping back into our modern world.
As mentioned, this is a very moderately-paced miniseries (this from the girl who loves Dickens and Masterpiece Theatre) and is very tame for HBO. Perhaps the melodrama, iniquity, passion and blood we expect from this broadcasting corporation, is riddled in the character's ulterior motives and the underlying feelings and thoughts we are but given a small glimpse into.
The darker side, the inhuman and savage side, is most clearly seen in Veda: a heartless creature who will stop at nothing to rip out her mother's heart.
I have not see the Joan Crawford adaptation in years; but can well say that this decides not to play up on the noir aspects its predecessor did. Instead, this Mildred Pierce strips the less-obvious yet still telling and poignant struggles and circumstances, nuances and dialogue from its source material, crafting a solid, if slow, evaluation on the highs and lows of parental relationships amidst quelled ambition.