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The new Mildred Pierce is familiar, fiercely different and truly fine

In television on 03/27/2011 at 11:40 am

“Looking forward to seeing this. I loved the film.”

I read this comment on Facebook after I posted a link on Saturday to a preview blog post of the new HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce (a post with photos and a making-of video, which you can see here) and I think it sums up the expectation that most people will bring to the premiere tonight, March 27, from 9-11 p.m. ET on HBO Canada: Does the 2011 miniseries hold up against the 1945 film that won Joan Crawford her only Oscar?

The answer is yes and no, but both answers are good, good news and before you read any further, set your recorder for tonight and the next two Sundays. You won’t want to miss any of the Mildred Pierce miniseries. And if you’re like me, it will make you start rereading James M. Cain’s 1941 novel and planning to rewatch the old film. This is the rare triple crown: a great original novel, adapted and changed into a film that stands on its own great gams and a second adaptation more faithful to the novel that stands, one knee slightly bent, on its own equally stunning two legs.

The miniseries is not like the movie in several bold points:

1. It is not a murder mystery.

2. It is not told in flashback, and

3. It is not a film noir, the latter being a blend of stark lighting, violence, cigarette smoking and ball-busting femme fatales that defined the style of filmmaking that was more or less birthed in the 1940s with the film adaptations of this and other books by the great Cain, namely Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

The 1945 film adaptation of Mildred Pierce, which was made after Double Indemnity and before Postman, added the elements of flashback and the murder as part of a major rewrite of Cain’s novel, cutting a key sexual element (but adding a level of violence, ironically) to appease censors and also to jam the adaptation into the new film style that had become all the cinematic rage.

Other differences between the miniseries and the old film is the number of characters absent from the film, which was already long for the era, at 111 minutes. Added back to the story in the five-hour, three-Sunday miniseries is, most importantly, neighbour Lucy Gessler, played perfectly by new Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, often line-by-line from the book, in which the character serves as Mildred’s tutor in the harsh ways of life for a newly single woman in Depression-era Los Angeles. Use your gams, never let a man buy you dinner when you can cook it yourself because then you’ll hold the cards, and remember, they’re all cads and if you feel sorry for them, know that that’s how they get to you, every time.

How the miniseries is like the film is in the portrayal of a proud woman determined not so much, it appears, to keep her two daughters from ever going hungry so much as never seeing their mother doing the menial work to which she has to stoop after kicking out her lout of a husband (who, of course, is a philanderer). Both Crawford and miniseries star Kate Winslet capture perfectly the self-torture that Mildred undergoes, hiding her shameful diner uniform lest her humiliating lowly work be discovered by Veda, her eldest, an outlandishly snobby girl who is denied nothing by Mildred, who reveres her: “There is something in her (Veda) that I thought I had and now I find I haven’t. Pride, or whatever it is. Nothing on earth could make Veda do what I’m doing to do,” Winslet’s Mildred tells Lucy as she swears her neighbour to secrecy about the diner job.”

Crawford and Winslet are also both smoldering sexual animals, as important a chink in Mildred’s armour as her poor taste in men.

What Winslet and the miniseries’ adaptation have that the Crawford film and even the Cain novel do not is a softness in Mildred’s character, a softness that creates a different antiheroine. Winslet’s Mildred still has all the harsh angles that she learns from Lucy, still has the blind spot for Veda and the adult male version of same in the body of playboy Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce), but the 2011 Mildred has a fuller heart that Winslet layers beautifully between Cain’s sinewy, ball-buster dialogue, as she does in an scene with soon-to-be ex-husband Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne) and in a key confrontation with Veda, where the idea for her own restaurant is born. I paused and rewatched the latter several times. Beautiful work.

Speaking of pausing, I loved the first two hours so much, I decided to put aside the review DVDs and wait like the rest of you poor saps to watch Part 3 at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, April 3 and the final Parts 4 & 5 at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, April 10. As when reading a great novel, I want to draw this out as long as I can.

Of course, my blather is just the starting point. Let me know what you think. I’m also reading the novel and will be checking in next weekend with another blog post.

If Mildred Pierce also sets you off on a quest for more on the book and the writer, check out this essay on Cain from the Guardian newspaper in the U.K., on the re-release of the Crawford film in 2001.

Denise Duguay


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