There are shows a critic feels required to love, by default and by pedigree. Luscious period dramas on HBO, for example. Mini-series set during the Depression, featuring iconic heroines formerly played by Joan Crawford. Also: cable productions based on a novel by hard-boiled genius James M. Cain, starring the delightfully haimish Kate Winslet and directed by stylish auteur Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Safe).
And the thing is, I did love Mildred Pierce, mostly, for much of its nearly six hours. Haynes has done a painstaking adaptation of the original Cain novel, the story of a middle-class mother betrayed by her viper of a social-climbing daughter. This is not an adaptation of the 1945 movie, with its camp-noir elements and police interrogation (the movie’s violent plot was imposed by the studio). Instead, Haynes has moved the story back into the thirties, giving Mildred’s class anxieties clearer political resonance. He’s also stuck to the book’s chronological structure—which covers nine years (1931 to 1940), not four—and returned the story to its roots as a social-realist weepie, tracing the mutually vampiric bond between the self-sacrificing Mildred and Veda, the object and product of her obsessive love.
Crawford famously wore the role as a mask of glamour, strutting in suits. Kate Winslet is comparatively life-size, a pragmatist undone by her maternal insecurities. When her cheating husband (Brían F. O’Byrne) walks out, Mildred finds work as a waitress. But though her older daughter—played with pathos and pretension by the terrific child actress Morgan Turner—looks down on her, Veda’s snobbery only inspires Mildred. She opens an upscale chain of restaurants, invents surf and turf, buys Veda music lessons and, later, the leisure to party like an aristocrat. While the movie’s Veda was just a cold-eyed femme fatale, this Veda is a sneering artiste, fueled by Mildred’s near-religious faith in her daughter’s musical talent. At moments, it feels a bit like Black Swan, only told from the maternal POV, with chicken and waffles instead of pink cake.
As in any “women’s picture,” sex poisons everything. Mildred sleeps with her husband’s ex-partner (James LeGros), who gets her started in business. During a fling with a playboy, Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), she has what seems to be her first orgasm—a flash of freedom in a life of service. But inevitably, pleasure leads straight to tragedy, and while Mildred builds her empire, her weasel of a boyfriend squires Veda around town, pouring sour axioms into the teenager’s ear. “‘Never take the mistress if you can get the maid,” she mimics to her mother, and while Mildred is hurt, she allows this cynical grooming to go on. It’s a story that feels both modern and old-fashioned: Veda may be “bad” and Mildred “good,” but they share an unspoken bargain, a single working mom’s guilt paid off with her blind eye for rotten behavior.
Then Veda grows up to be Evan Rachel Wood—or, as her Italian music teacher puts it, “She is snake. Is bitch. Is coloratura!” The final passages of Mildred Pierce have their soapy pleasures, but to me, at least, they didn’t entirely hold up, perhaps because Winslet’s Mildred is, in Cain’s parlance, “a bit of a sap.” In both the novel and the movie, Mildred calculatingly enters a loveless marriage to woo her daughter back. In the HBO version, she’s just a sucker for Monty, swooning every time for his highbrow Pepé le Pew act. And for all of Haynes’s loyalty to his source, it may simply be impossible to replicate Cain’s caustic, dry-eyed tone: Likable as she is, Winslet makes Mildred heroic, when really she’s the most unsettling helicopter parent in the history of time and space.
Truthfully, I may be a bit of a sap myself. Because whatever Mildred Pierce’s weaknesses, there’s no denying its sensual dazzle. The script is full of period pleasures: “varlet,” “mush,” “stinko.” You sigh over every dress. Even a close-up of restaurant workers chopping chickens feels like a waltz. If this visual splendor sometimes feels like tablecloth pornography (oh, God, the thread count!), it’s a highly effective form of cinematic synesthesia. And when it pays off, Haynes’s framing feels indelible. As Mildred leans in for a kiss on her sleeping daughter’s lips, it’s a moment that seems more erotic than any sex scene that came before it.