With acclaimed filmmaker Todd Haynes directing and Oscar winner Kate Winslet starring as "Mildred Pierce" (8 p.m. March 27, April 3 and 10, HBO; ** out of four), I expected this mini-series based on James M. Cain's 1941 novel to dazzle me.
Instead, I was at times bored, but mostly just frustrated (and irritated).
Set in Depression-era Glendale, Calif., the story begins when homemaker Mildred kicks out her philandering husband, Bert (Brian O'Bryne), without thinking about how she will support their two daughters, 11-year-old Veda (Morgan Turner) and her younger sis, Ray (Quinn McColgan). But she's an excellent baker of pies, so she gets work as a waitress, studies the business and eventually launches a successful restaurant and bakery chain.
Things aren't completely rosy for Mildred, thanks to Veda, who is so horrible to her rather sweet mother that it seems inconceivable they share the same blood. Veda starts out as a preteen tyrant who is embarrassed by her working mom and grows into a vicious, self-absorbed monster who fancies herself a high-class princess.
But why? Haynes never explains what has made Veda so haughty. More important, he fails to explain why Mildred tolerates her behavior and, in later episodes, almost encourages it.
How can such a survivor let her devil spawn ruin her life? Spare the rod and spoil the child, I think not. It's time for bare-bottom belting, or at least an ending of all ties with the soul- and money-sucking kid. But when that finally happens--and because the now 19-year-old Veda (Evan Rachel Wood) cuts off her mother, mind you--Mildred is crushed.
There's a mother's love for her child, and then there's stupidity. Neither Haynes nor his leading lady explains why Mildred accepts such abuse. Winslet obviously wanted to create a more subdued Mildred than Joan Crawford did for her Oscar-winning role in the 1945 film, but by dialing back the melodrama she makes Mildred seem confused by Veda, but not particularly hurt and definitely not angry.
Their odd mother-daughter dynamic is inexplicable, and difficult to accept.
While Winslet's scenes with Veda failed to impress me, she does much better with her other acting partners. Her scenes with Guy Pearce, excellent as Mildred's lover Monty Beragon, burn with desire and passion. She has an easy chemistry with Melissa Leo, as Mildred's pal Lucy, and Mare Winningham, as her waitress mentor Ida. Winningham, in her minor role, gives one of the strongest performances.
Like the minor roles, the small details also work well here. Haynes and his crew conjure up 1930s Los Angeles, from the gorgeous mansions of upscale Pasadena all the way down to the dishes in the restaurants. It's time-capsule, visually stunning filmmaking.
Those details, and Winningham, were pretty much all that sustained my interest in the first couple hours. The storytelling does rev up in Parts 4 and 5, but by then, I so wanted to smack Veda for being such a wretch and Mildred for taking it.
I was ready to leave Pasadena for Hollywood, and have some pie with Ida.