Michael Koresky on Mildred Pierce
One think piece after another these days identifies television as the new frontier for challenging, adult, cinematic material; while this is understandable considering the breathtaking emotional impact of The Sopranos, as well as the genuinely compelling, provocative dramatic series that sprung up in its wake (The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad), playing such games of equivalency is just the latest, most culturally approved way of ringing the death knell for movies. The two forms can’t adequately be compared—single narrative arcs that roil and stew over the course of many years are the cornerstone of a format completely oppositional to traditional moviemaking, in which a sculpted, contained story has to convey its emotional breadth in approximately two hours. The type of succinct visual storytelling that marks Hollywood’s greatest output, from Sunrise to Vertigo to The Tree of Life, is not the purview of television; movies, however far we think they’ve fallen this week, exist in their own realm.
Todd Haynes has always been particularly brilliant at the succinct gesture: Poison (1992) and I’m Not There (2007) jump between multiple story strands with finesse, each given just enough screen time to make visual impact; Safe (1995), widely regarded as his masterpiece, plays like a series of loaded moments, each scene precise and unsettling and never giving too much information, as impenetrable as its ambiguously ill protagonist; Far from Heaven (2002) unfolds as a series of discrete fifties-era Hollywood tableaux that build to a single emotional crescendo. For his 2011 made-for-HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce—an adaptation more faithful to James M. Cain’s 1941 novel than the famous Michael Curtiz version from 1945 that earned Joan Crawford her Oscar—he stretches his talents out to five and a half hours; the breathing room brings out something new, strange, and wondrous in him. This is an expansive, rich psychological portrait first, and a detailed pastiche second. While it feels almost deferential to its leading lady, a luminously tormented Kate Winslet—who’s in, and thoroughly commands, every scene—it’s also a perfectly calibrated, remarkably atmospheric work of popular art, both novelistic and, yes, here’s that word, cinematic. At first glance, it seems abundantly clear what makes Haynes’s Mildred Pierce a successful film: namely, great storytelling, acting, set design, cinematography, music, etc.—those basic building blocks. But it takes a while to sink in just what it is that makes it so extraordinary.
Gone is the noir framework of the Curtiz adaptation, which sensationalized Cain’s tale of depression-era middle-class social climbing and sacrificial motherhood into a tale of murder. This is no crime story—but there is a clear-cut villain, one of the aspects that makes Mildred Pierce stand out so much from Haynes’s more morally ambiguous other work. Over five slow-burning episodes, the film charts, with compelling clarity, Los Angeles wife and mother Mildred’s rise from down-on-her-luck divorcée to struggling waitress to confident restaurateur, as well as her on-again, off-again relationship with washed-up playboy Monty (Guy Pearce)—but through it all one thing remains horribly constant: the vicious presence of her monstrous offspring Veda. Played as a preteen in parts one through three by Morgan Turner, whose smug, improbably wide grin seems ready to eat up the world, and later as a young adult by a perfectly scowly Evan Rachel Wood, Veda is a stripped-raw manifestation of selfishness and classism, a beast of the early twentieth century. Mildred slaves away for the goodness of Veda and her younger daughter, Ray (Quinn McColgan); yet Veda’s remorselessly ungrateful behavior cuts her mother down at every turn. The girl is obsessed with extricating herself from her Glendale tract house and what she views as an embarrassingly plebeian middle-class lifestyle, eventually turning to piano, then acting, and finally opera as a one-way ticket out of town, and away from dowdy mom.
Haynes has said he didn’t want Veda to come across as simply devilish (he and Winslet clearly take pains to show that she’s the product of a somewhat spoiled and passive upbringing), but she’s undoubtedly the prime antagonist. The film practically revolves around about a half-dozen elegantly staged mother-daughter blowouts, and each of the five episodes closes on a note of dread associated with Veda—at the end of part one, the camera pans over to the back of her head framed by a window, and she appears like nothing less than a caged animal waiting to pounce; at the astonishingly bizarre climax of part four, Mildred hears a radio broadcast of her now estranged daughter’s improbable, otherworldly soprano for the first time, and they’re like the emissions from a space alien. Mildred and Veda’s mano a mano skirmishes, always taking place within the becalmed walls of Mildred’s house (brilliantly, evocatively set designed by Mark Friedberg), make for some of the most thrilling, unapologetically melodramatic scenes in recent American filmmaking, especially between Winslet and young Turner, whose awkward adolescent gait is particularly unsettling when juxtaposed with her attempts at putting on airs with florid, “adult” rhetoric (“Ye gods and little fishes!”) and exacting death stares.
The drawn-out length of Mildred Pierce allows Mildred’s frustration and anxiety about her daughter to slowly build with an intensity usually unseen outside horror films—Winslet’s occasional hair-raising expression at her daughter’s behavior often recalls nothing so much as Mia Farrow’s face after pulling back the curtains on the bassinet in Rosemary’s Baby. The full 336 minutes helps make Mildred’s long-suffering maternal sacrifice anything but theoretical; her bond to Veda—her desperate need for her—remains primally strong, despite Veda’s almost constant mistreatment of her. It can make for frustrating viewing, but also a fairly extraordinary sustained expression of tunnel-visioned mother love. Whereas in the original version Crawford’s inherent brassiness always felt somewhat at odds with the character’s supposed selflessness, Winslet’s more tremulous Mildred is a plausible all-giving vessel, emptying herself out until it seems there’s nothing left.
Because Winslet is constantly onscreen, the way that Haynes and director of photography Ed Lachman position her in the wide frame is of utmost importance. Often in medium shots, Winslet is both the center of attention and somewhat dwarfed by everything around her, which helps give her a sense of being both dynamic and drab, an extraordinary and everyday woman. Haynes has been accused in the past of being an overly academic filmmaker, yet here he doesn’t purposefully box in his actress to make a visual point; rather he subtly communicates, through blocking, lighting, and performance, that nearly every interaction she has—whether with Monty; her ex-husband, Bert (a lived-in Brian F. O’Byrne); her sometime lover and business advisor Wally (James LeGros)—is a struggle for survival. Even the support provided by her closest female friends—no-guff neighbor Lucy (Melissa Leo) and blowsy waitress Ida (a chameleonic Mare Winningham)—is almost always of the subtly judgmental business variety.
More than anything, Mildred Pierce is a haunting depiction of the ghosts of the Depression. Veda’s proclamations against those she views as “peasants” or “hopelessly middle-class” seem less the vagaries of a spoiled brat than the eruptions of a modern American id, pointing forward to a postwar middle class obsessed with ever upward mobility. This retrospective socioeconomic awareness never overtakes Haynes’s film—even a scene in which we overhear FDR’s inaugural “fear itself” address against images of polo players milling about on horses at a country club evaporates too quickly to register as anything other than dreamlike. Rather the film is always in the moment; unlike Far from Heaven, it never feels like a formal exercise, despite the almost constant technical mastery on display. Mildred Pierce is perhaps the first miniseries that feels like a cinematic event, but it’s also clearly aided by the storytelling possibilities that opened up as a result of its being made for television. In this way, consider Haynes’s film a new hybrid form: a small-screen work fit for a movie palace.
Mildred Pierce shows May 13 at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the series See It Big, co-presented by Reverse Shot.