Ellen Gray: Todd Haynes' 'Mildred Pierce' gets it right

Kate Winslet (right) as Mildred Pierce, embracing Evan Rachel Wood, her daughter.
Kate Winslet (right) as Mildred Pierce, embracing Evan Rachel Wood, her daughter.
Posted: March 25, 2011

MILDRED PIERCE. 9 p.m. Sundays through April 10, HBO.

WHEN WE ASK why Hollywood keeps repeating itself, the correct answer is too often failure of imagination.

Every once in a while, though, a remake represents someone's attempt to get the thing right.

And in turning "Mildred Pierce" into the nearly six-hour miniseries that premieres Sunday on HBO, that's exactly what director Todd Haynes ("Far from Heaven") has tried to do for James M. Cain's story of a driven Depression-era entrepreneur and her relationship with her willful, talented daughter.

Speaking with reporters in January, Haynes proclaimed himself a fan of the Michael Curtiz-directed "Mildred Pierce" of 1945, which twisted Cain's tale into a murder mystery and won Joan Crawford an Academy Award.

But he's clearly a bigger fan of Cain, whose "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice" were made into pictures that helped define film noir but left the writer himself pigeonholed.

It wasn't until 2008 that Haynes read the 1941 novel for the first time - "right as the financial markets were tumbling in the United States" - and discovered that it wasn't quite the period piece he'd expected.

Cain's "Mildred Pierce" was "so much more relevant, I thought, and relatable than I ever truly felt about the original film, which is a beautifully stylized piece of Hollywood operatic, noir filmmaking. This felt modern and contemporary and approachable, and it's one of the reasons why I wanted to take it on," Haynes said.

Three years later, as we contemplate the possibility of a jobless recovery, the story of a middle-class woman starting over after divorce and financial failure has her waiting tables to feed her children feels no less timely.

Yet there's also something wonderfully specific to the 1930s about this "Mildred Pierce," Haynes having enlisted Kate Winslet to play Cain's doughty heroine.

Winslet - who has an Oscar of her own, thank you very much - is blessed with one of those faces that exist in nature, not just on screen (or in the waiting rooms of Beverly Hills plastic surgeons), and she's utterly believable as the attractive but prickly "grass widow" who discovers the joys of sex only after she's sent her husband Bert (Brian F. O'Byrne) packing and taken up with a polo player (Guy Pearce).

Other period-friendly faces include recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo ("The Fighter"), Mare Winningham and Hope Davis (and Pearce, whose Monty Beragon could easily have stepped out of a '30s movie).

Much of the dialogue in the script, co-written by Haynes and Jon Raymond, hews closely to Cain's, and the two seem also to have shared Cain's apparently keen interest in the nuts and bolts of actual waitressing and the process of getting a restaurant up and running.

I found it weirdly fascinating myself.

If Winslet's work and love lives sometimes overshadow her supposedly obsessive relationship with her daughter Veda, it may partly be because Evan Rachel Wood ("True Blood") doesn't show up until fairly late in the game, leaving her transformation from hoity-toity child (Morgan Turner) to spoiled (but operatically gifted) adult largely unexplored.

Was Mildred an early prototype for helicopter parents?

Is Veda what happens when we shelter children from economic realities? Is she a bitch because her father left? Or simply a bad seed?

That we never really find out didn't ruin "Mildred Pierce" for me. The story, after all, isn't called "Veda Pierce," and what remains is a surprising amount of fun, given that we're talking divorce, Depression and dysfunction.

Still, it does offer a possible hint as to why someone all those years ago thought that what Cain's story really cried out for was a spot of homicide.

Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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