Saturday, January 14, 2012

DVDebut -- Todd Haynes' MILDRED PIERCE proves mostly drama in place of melodrama

Money talks, walks & squawks throughout the new-on-DVD HBO miniseries MILDRED PIERCE. They could have called it Mildred Purse. For those of us (most of us, I suspect) who know the work via the 1945 Curtiz/Crawford movie, rather than the original James M. Cain novel, the biggest surprise may be that the damn thing registers more as drama than the melodrama (a delicious one) that the highly telescoped movie provided.

In the hands of Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven), as director and co-writer, we would expect the right look for the time and place, as well a smart approach to a movie so centered on a woman and her travails (Safe), and one in which the social milieu (Velvet Goldmine) and the mysterious shards of character (I'm Not There) count for so much. Haynes, pictured at right, does not disappoint. Neither does his star Kate Winslett, who makes Mildred a full-bodied (and -brained) woman of her time whose solution to her money problems (the story takes place during the years of the Great Depression) catapults her and her family and friends into tasty success (this series will make you crave pie).

One of the keenest pleasures to be found is derived from the fact that Haynes (and maybe Caine, too) sees no villains here. Even Mildred's daughter Veda, certainly the least likable of the pack (even her musical mentor calls her a snake), is simply behaving true to form and to what she perceives are her own best interests. Everyone here does this, including Monty Beragon, played with a relaxed grace and built-in hauteur, in what is his best performance in years, by Guy Pearce (above).

In addition to Monty's character being much more fleshed out and believably human, the biggest surprise to me in the film is the handling of Mildred's first husband, given decency and strength by Brian F. O'Byrne (above, center), a fine actor who registers extremely strongly in this role.

The more than five-and-one-half hours of running time enables Haynes and Winslett to to explore character and motivation more deeply than the 111-minute earlier film, and we we're treated to a better understanding Mildred's difficulties in first finding a job then rising to the top via her own skills and the help of others.

Those others include a starry supporting cast of well-chosen actors, all of whom deliver -- from Melissa Leo as Mildren's best friend and neighbor, Mare Winningham as her mentor in waitressing, a newly rotund James LeGros helping out her business interests, and Hope Davis (above) as the rich-bitch director's wife who comes into Mildred's life early on and then again a decade later.

A word must be said, too, for the actresses who essay the role of Veda: Morgan Turner (at left, three photos above) as the younger version and Evan Rachel Wood (above with Winslett) as the older. Both are exceptionally fine, turning what could easily become a caricature into, granted, a very odd but quite sadly believable young girl and young woman.

This Mildred Pierce is so spot-on regarding period and place, and so full of fine acting and writing, that you come away from the series -- we watched the five episodes over three evenings, as the last (at 82 minutes) is nearly a full-length film -- with renewed respect for these very interesting characters, what they go through and what they learn. We might have wished that Mildred did not need to be punished for her night of unbridled passion -- by god? misogyny? Cain's 1930-era morality? -- with the loss of something irreplace-able. But that was the woman's role back then.  Back then, right?

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