You can’t have failed during awards season to hear all the hype about Mildred Pierce, a five part miniseries aired on HBO over a few nights in March and April last year. It was adapted from the novel by James M. Cain, in fact using much of the novel’s original dialogue, and is similar to the 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford (but differing in one crucial plot point).
Mildred Pierce is an ordinary middle class housewife with two children when the Depression hits and her philandering husband leaves her. Mildred must make a living to support her children and herself and, finding that she is not considered employable due to her lack of work experience outside the home, she becomes a waitress. She is canny and hardworking, and eventually ends up owning a restaurant and cake shop to support herself and her eldest daughter Veda, who dreams of becoming a concert pianist.
Mildred is played by Kate Winslet who won an Emmy Award, a SAG Award and a Golden Globe for her performance. She has been nominated for so many awards that she is fast becoming the Meryl Streep of her generation and is certainly at the top of her game. Mildred, in Winslet’s hands, is flawed but likeable character, trying to do her best for her children and taking love and fun where she can find it. She is an unremarkable woman in many ways, yet Winslet makes her memorable. There is a physicality about her performance that is very authentic; Mildred is a graceless woman, and it is easy to see why her social climbing daughter might be ashamed of the first impression her mother creates.
Morgan Turner plays Veda, a nauseating little girl: pretentious, insincere and egocentric. She seems a to exert a strange adult power over her mother, shaming Mildred and making her feel inadequate and unsophisticated. Evan Rachel Wood portrays an equally loathsome Veda in adulthood; a self-satisfied, scheming and melodramatic young woman without warmth or conscience. Now a coluratura soprano, Veda has the career to match her considerable ambition.
When a character is written in this way, to have little or no redeeming qualities and be utterly unsympathetic, it takes a skilled actress to bring some humanity to the portrayal. Unfortunately I’m not sure that Evan Rachel Wood has the talent to fully realise this. I felt her Veda was a little overplayed: a bit too shrill, a bit too evil, almost bordering on camp. She also doesn’t possess the miming skills required for the singing scenes; her diaphragm barely moves and she is totally unconvincing.
My credulity was stretched by the relationship between Veda and Mildred. Mildred, being a savvy sharp woman, should be able to see that there is a viper in her nest, yet time and again she enables Veda, waves away any shortcomings, forgives wantonly cruel behaviour. I know a mother’s love is supposed to be unconditional but to me their relationship didn’t ring completely true.
That being said, the miniseries has much to recommend it. Although some viewers found it a little slow, I enjoyed the pace – all the better to appreciate the beautiful cinematography by Edward Lachman. Melissa Leo gives a great performance as Lucy Gessler, Mildred’s down to earth and supportive best friend, and Guy Pearce is arch, sexy and wonderful in his role of playboy Monty Beragon.