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HBO's 'Mildred Pierce' Remake Takes Full Advantage of Miniseries Format
March 24, 2011  | By David Bianculli

[Sorry I've been slow to provide new columns this week, but life and scholastic deadlines intervened. Back on track, though, with a review of an upcoming HBO drama I've very happy to steer you towards... - DB]

For many decades now, every time I start previewing a new TV miniseries, it's with a dual sense of anticipation and dread. Anticipation, because when done well, this is one of my favorite TV genres. Dread, because when you know from the first minute that it's probably a clunker, a multi-hour miniseries is a chunk of your life you'll never get back.

HBO's Mildred Pierce, which premieres Sunday night at 9 ET with its first two of five hours, lets you know from the very first minute that it's something special. And it is...


Kate Winslet stars, inheriting the Oscar-winning title role played by Joan Crawford in the 1945 film. Both that movie and this miniseries are based on the 1941 Depression-era novel by James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But where the movie was structured as a flashback, and built around a murder mystery, this new version is truer to the source material. There's no tacked-on killing --but there doesn't have to be.

Todd Haynes is the director of this new version (and, with Jon Raymond, co-author of the screenplay adaptation). He starts HBO's Mildred Pierce with a deliberate pace and perspective that announces his intentions clearly and confidently. In the opening minute, we don't see Winslet as Mildred -- not completely. We see her hands, methodically crimping the edges of a pie crust; a wall display of family photos and blueprints and suburban development plans; cake icing being stirred and prepared.

By the time we see Mildred's face, we already know she's a talented baker, a proud and prim homemaker, and that her husband is a successful real estate developer. Almost immediately, though, when that husband comes home, the marriage crashes and burns, and Mildred is on her own, with two young daughters, no prospects for employment, and no idea how to maintain her middle-class lifestyle.

It's no wonder Haynes, Raymond and HBO saw this as the right era in which to revisit Mildred Pierce. The story of a proud but persistent woman, struggling to survive as a parade of men both entice and disappoint her, couldn't be more timely, or more modern. And with the other key spine of the story -- Mildred's love for, and conflicts with, her daughters -- Mildred Pierce is almost like a Mama Grizzly cautionary fable. You can love your cubs to death, and do anything for them, but that may not be enough -- and they may resent you regardless.


The beauty of this adaptation is, in part, its deliberate pace. At five hours -- 60 150 percent longer than the movie -- HBO's Mildred Pierce can take us along on more of Mildred's arduous struggle, and linger on more telling details.

When she finally, reluctantly, takes a job as a waitress, we get enough close-up flavor to feel like we're sharing her shift. And long before that, we've completely lost Winslet in the title role. Kate Winslet has never been on screen longer, and has never been better.


It takes four hours for the young actress playing Mildred's elder daughter, Veda, to step aside, and have the more mature Veda show up, played by Evan Rachel Wood, the vampire queen from HBO's True Blood. Another character, played by Hope Davis, shows up once in the first hour, and doesn't reappear for a very long time -- but when she does, there's a big payoff that was the better for having simmered all that time. And boy, does that go double for Mildred's relationship with Veda. Time and again, patience in watching this drama is more than amply rewarded.

The supporting roles in Mildred Pierce are set up, and carried out, with a quiet but crucial flair. Broadway vet Brian F. O'Byrne, as Mildred's first husband, is surprising yet believable in his maturing serenity. James LeGros, as an opportunistic lover, and Guy Pearce, as a confident playboy, are given screen time to develop and change as well.

The women in Mildred's life include Melissa Leo, fresh from her Oscar for The Fighter, as a no-nonsense neighbor, and Mare Winningham as an even more stoic and flinty waitress. They're excellent, too -- in fact, everyone in this miniseries is just fine, thanks.

The only flaw in HBO's Mildred Pierce come right at the climax, when a perfect confrontation scene is followed by a very imperfect, overblown one. But the miniseries rights itself immediately after that, and ends just as satisfyingly and intriguingly as it began.

[To listen to or read my Friday review of Mildred Pierce on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, click HERE after about 5 p.m. Friday.]




Eileen said:

I don't get HBO on my very expensive, but not very inclusive, Time Warner Cable plan. Your review, however, has tempted me to call TWC to order HBO. I'll just rationalize it that I really, really need to see this; also, I would love to see Boardwalk Empire. It just might be worth the investment.

With the proliferation of reality tv it seems like centuries since the miniseries was in style. Sadly, it was not that many years ago. I remember when a two or three parter would hook you on Sunday night so you had to watch the remaining installments. And even when they weren't miniseries, there were wonderful made-for-tv movies. ABC had their "Movie of the Week", and NBC was churning out some darn good product as well. TV movies like "Sybil" and "An Early Frost" were heavily promoted and scored high in the ratings. Unfortunately, I don't think we'll ever see that type of style and class again.

Now if we can just get AMC to start with miniseries we'll be all set...

[I'm with you all the way, Eileen -- except that AMC has done two miniseries in its latest wave of programming. One, Robert Duvall's "Broken Trail" Western, was the first hint of the "Mad Men"/"Breaking Bad" quality to come. The other, a sadly misguided remake of "The Prisoner." wasn't. But TV movies and miniseries? Bring 'em on. Please. -- DB]

Comment posted on March 24, 2011 5:31 PM

Mario said:

OK. Not to be picky but I believe your math is wrong in this review. Admittedly this is not the most important part of the review but I am never the less compelled to point out that the mini series is not 60% longer than the original movie. IMDb puts the original at 111 minutes, so lets round to 2 hours. That would put this series at about 150% longer. No?

[Yes. And it's why I'm not a math critic. Good catch. -- DB]

Comment posted on March 26, 2011 11:24 AM

Eileen said:

Mea Culpa... I did see "Broken Trail", not once but twice. And I loved it -- as you know I love all things Robert Duvall. I wouldn't have watched "The Prisoner", as I wasn't a fan of the original tv show. But that's just me.

And I don't consider what Lifetime, WE and Oxygen offer up as tv movies or miniseries -- not with gems like "Mother, May I Sleep with Danger?" starring the Queen of Nepotism, Tori Spelling.

I guess with the profits to be made on reality tv, i.e., low overhead, we'll never see the likes of the 70s and 80s tv movies and miniseries. I continue to hope...

Comment posted on March 27, 2011 2:53 PM

Angela said:

Eileen, I called my cable company because I didn't have HBO and I just had to see Boardwalk Empire. Turns out I got a really good deal, less than the going price (whatever that price really and truly is, as I think they make it up as they go along), and then it was extended after the 6 month promotion ended for another 6 months, when I called to cancel it.

I once called my Internet service provider just to see what it would cost to get double my connection speed. I ended up getting double the speed I had had, for less than what I was paying before that call. Some kind of error on their part that they weren't too happy about honoring when the first representative I spoke to caught it and told me so. Four reps later into my phone conversation with them, I had a credit for 6 months and twice the speed.

Someone told me that a non-profit manager once said, "We already got a no, let's see what else we can get." You could always say, "No thanks", when they name their price and see what they say to that! I never liked bartering, but it seems that's the way these providers do things these days.

I hope you're pleasantly surprised if and when you give TWC a call.

Comment posted on March 27, 2011 5:48 PM

Meb said:

I just finished watching Mildred Pierce this morning and I must say I liked it. The only thing that bothered me is the two actresses who played Vida. The little girl was ok at best and I found Rachel Evan Woods to be quite bad. Especially as an Opera singer. The way she kept moving her hands whilst singing was very unrealistic and her tantrums and manipulations sounded pretty superficial and fake to me. I guess being a musician I expect a lot from actors playing musicians...Still, it made me sad since I found the rest of the cast to be very good.

Anyhow, love listening to you on fresh air. You made me discover quite a few things. Keep up the good work.

[Thanks a lot -- and I'm instantly impressed by anyone who writes "whilst." -- DB

Comment posted on June 17, 2011 12:11 AM
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