HBO's new miniseries "Mildred Pierce," launching Sunday night, shares a title with the 1945 film that won Joan Crawford her only Oscar and is based on the same James M. Cain novel, but what director Todd Haynes has done with the material is something else entirely, and something not to be missed.
Eliciting extraordinary performances from a cast headed by Oscar winner Kate Winslet in the title role and with a visually thrilling attention to period detail and rich cinematography by Ed Lachman, Haynes both celebrates and wrestles with the potboiling melodrama of Cain's story. Except for a few scenes, he wins the bout.
In its own way, "Mildred Pierce" is a pre-feminist novel about a sister doin' it for herself during the Depression after she sends her philandering husband, Bert (Brian F. O'Byrne), packing and has to find a way to support herself and her two young daughters. In short order (no pun intended), Mildred gets a job as a waitress, soon realizes she can make better desserts than the owner is serving and moves from pie-baking to making lots of dough as a restaurant owner herself.
Even as a child, Mildred's elder daughter, Veda (Morgan Turner), displays a chilling mix of ambition and arrogance, hissing spiteful disdain when she finds out that her mother has taken a job as a waitress. As a young woman (now played by Evan Rachel Wood), Veda tolerates Mildred's success only because it affords her the lavish lifestyle to which she aspires. When told she lacks the talent to become a successful concert pianist, Veda stumbles into a career as a sought-after coloratura and kicks Mama to the curb before executing a singular act of ultimate betrayal.
While director Michael Curtiz turned the book into a film noir in the '40s, even adding a murder to seal the deal, Veda's character is bloodlessly pathological enough to fuel the complicated relationship between mother and daughter without gunplay. Haynes gets that, but he and co-screenwriter Jon Raymond also get a more complicated concept of Mildred herself.
This is much more than just a woman who is willing to do anything, first, to protect her children and, later, to win her hateful daughter's allegiance. In her way, Mildred is almost as ambitious as Veda, and though she may have to swallow some of her pride to sling hash, she cares about status and appearance.
We see that most clearly when she falls for the oleaginous, down-on-his-luck aristocrat/con man Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce). She's driven by lust -- not just the physical variety but for what he represents. He may live in a few small rooms in an otherwise deserted, threadbare mansion, but he can still pull off the look of a wealthy dilettante.
Where Mildred differs from Veda, however, is that she is not impervious to human emotions -- sadness, regret, compassion and honest love. Those qualities not only soften the rough edges of her character but, in a way, keep her from seeing Veda for what she is, not to mention Monty and other figures in her life, including her one-time lover, Wally (a potbellied James LeGros), and fellow waitress Ida (Mare Winningham), both of whom end up betraying her.
Mildred is very much a three-dimensional character, and, in her way, more of a modern woman than we're used to in mid-20th-century melodrama. That complexity makes her both interesting and surprising, but it also trips Haynes up a bit here and there. Or, more to the point, Cain's penchant for melodrama does. No matter how self-driven and besotted Mildred may be over Monty, her impulsive and ultimately tragic decision to take off with him to Santa Barbara for the weekend isn't entirely convincing. It is necessary for an important plot point, but it feels more convenient than credible.
Winslet has to make rather sizable emotional leaps to cover all the aspects of Mildred's character. She pretty much pulls it off, stumbling only when Cain's plot conveniences trump character credibility. Oscar winner Melissa Leo is both brittle and warm as Mildred's best friend, Lucy Gessler; Winningham delivers a magnificent performance as Ida; Pearce is sexy, sad and reptilian as Monty; and LeGros and O'Byrne acquit themselves wonderfully as well.
As the adult Veda, Wood has almost as much of a challenge as Winslet. The character has to show moments of feigned humanity in order to make the story's climax pay off correctly. That strains credibility again, but Wood towers when Veda shows her true colors.
Haynes is the perfect director for this material. As he's shown in past work -- notably "Far From Heaven" -- he actually respects melodrama. At the same time, he knows he has to make it believable. For the most part, he succeeds because he embraces the story's excesses instead of feeling they need to be swept under a metaphorical rug.