The most nominated show in this year’s upcoming Emmy Awards is Todd Haynes’ adaption of James M.Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce. With a big name cast led by Kate Winslet in the titular role, this dark, grey series has received a lot of positive acclaim, as well as some criticism. But is it worth your time?
The first point that needs making about this programme is that it is really, really long, clocking in at over five hours. Anyone used to watching HBO dramas will know that the majority of them aren’t exactly fast-paced, so I was far from expecting that here. But as good as Mildred Pierce is, it does drag at times-especially in the first episode which basically takes a whole hour just to set the scene for what is upcoming. The scenes where Mildred ponders whether to ‘lower herself’ to the role of a waitress take an absolute age, for example.
I did wonder at times why this wasn’t broadcast as a two and a half hour TV film. At first I thought it was because they didn’t want to tar something with a strong cast of Winslet, Guy Pearce, and Evan Rachel Wood with the dreaded term of ‘television movie’, but then recently HBO have had Al Pacino and Susan Sarandon (You Don’t Know Jack), and Claire Danes (Temple Grandin) in television movies, which kind of disproves that theory. Perhaps they felt that two and a half hours wasn’t enough time to tell the story of Mildred Pierce, and they were probably right. I would question that five hours was too long, but once I got in to it, I was thoroughly drawn in and hardly noticed the time pass.
As for the story itself, Mildred is a middle-class suburban housewife, forced to fend a living for herself and her two daughters in the Depression following her divorce from husband Bert. She initially struggles to find work, before eventually swallowing her pride and becoming a waitress, much to the disgust of her bratty daughter Veda.
Veda is a piano prodigy, but also extremely pompous and unbearable. She is played as a child by Morgan Turner, putting in an exceptional turn for an 11-year-old. While I certainly don’t condone violence on children, there are times throughout the programme when you are willing Mildred to slap some sense in to her daughter, which is testament to the performance by Turner.
With the time-shift between the third and fourth episodes, Veda is the only character to age at all, as she becomes Evan Rachel Wood, in a role much closer to her recent vampy appearances in True Blood than the grumpy teenager she was in films such as Thirteen and The Wrestler.
A notable feature of Mildred Pierce is that the entire story is told through the viewpoint of the lead character. Not through her narrating or anything, just that there are barely any scenes without her — great for fans of Kate Winslet in various period dresses. It also means we as the viewers really follow her through the story. We learn of her successes and failures as she does, and in a key twist in the final episode, we might think we know what is going to happen, but we don’t know it for sure until she does. If that last paragraph makes any sense.
Along the way in Mildred’s journey she falls in love again with a new man, a playboy called Monte Beragon (played by Guy Pearce) who woos her at her lowest point before taking full advantage of her rise to the top. He is one of a number of excellent supporting characters, which include Brian F. O’Byrne and Mare Winningham, plus Melissa Leo as Mildred’s plucky, big thinking pal Lucy. In seemingly no time at all, Leo has developed from ‘that actress who looks a bit like Susan Sarandon’ to an Oscar winner who is fantastic in everything she is in.
But as good as the supporting cast is, Mildred Pierce is basically a character study about a mother and her ongoing attempt to win the love and respect of her daughter. There are obviously other themes throughout, such as the divorce, the restaurant business and Monte, and these all help shape a part of the story, but at the heart of it the one motif shines through.
Try not to be put off by the length, as if you have a solid attention span and can handle the slow place then this really is a fantastic piece of television drama, and well worth the praise and recognition it has received.