HBO miniseries/remake 'Mildred Pierce' delivers powerful period punch
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PASADENA, Calif. -- With "Big Love" done and a few weeks until the debut of "Game of Thrones," HBO offers an engrossing five-part period miniseries: "Mildred Pierce" (9-11:05 p.m. Sunday; 9-10:15 p.m. April 3 and 9-11:30 p.m. April 10).
Adapted from the 1941 James M. Cain novel and previously made into a movie in 1945 with Joan Crawford in the title role, the new "Mildred Pierce" stars Kate Winslet ("Titanic") as a single mother and businesswoman making her way through the Great Depression in Glendale, Calif. She's also saddled with a daughter, Veda (Morgan Turner initially and later Evan Rachel Wood), who is obsessed with social class and bettering her own standing.
"Egads and little fishes, hear my cynical laughter," Veda says, sassing her mother before calling her a sap during one confrontation.
No television network captures period details as accurately as HBO, and the production design in "Mildred Pierce" is no exception. The miniseries looks fantastic, and the performances, particularly from Ms. Winslet, are terrific and more true-to-life than one might expect from a melodrama set during that period of time.
Mildred's relationship with her husband, Bert (Brian F. O'Byrne), begins as strained -- one wishes the story began earlier in their marriage to better explain Mildred's disenchantment and Bert's straying -- but grows into a more complex rapport. And her relationships with both Wally Burgan (James LeGros) and Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) are played matter-of-factly rather than as a salacious scandal.
The miniseries feels a little pokey in its early chapters, although it does an excellent job of establishing the primary characters, and then races too quickly toward its conclusion (wait, who is Mildred married to now?). Regardless, it depicts a believable story of a woman entrepreneur who pulls herself out of financial woe even as she tries to maintain a relationship with her increasingly self-centered daughter.
As much as the mother-daughter relationship is intended to be the core of "Mildred Pierce," it may also be the most strained, melodramatic element. The Mildred-as-proto-feminist and Mildred-as-restaurateur story lines feel more real; her conflicts with Veda sometimes come across as heightened reality and occasionally drift into soap opera territory.
At an HBO press conference in January, "Mildred Pierce" director Todd Haynes ("Far From Heaven," "Velvet Goldmine") said he was a fan of the original film but was surprised to discover how it deviated from Mr. Cain's novel when he read it in 2008 as U.S. financial markets were tumbling.
"I was startled ... by how incredibly frank and how much he was really purposefully trying to not do a film noir as he'd been known for in [the novels] 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' and 'Double Indemnity,' but really doing a realistic portrait of a mother-daughter relationship set in the 10-year span of the Depression in Los Angeles," Mr. Haynes said. "The frankness with which he dealt with Mildred's sexuality, her relationship with Monty and the complexity between the two women's characters, mother and daughter, was so much more nuanced and relatable than I ever truly felt about the original film, which is a beautifully stylized piece of Hollywood operatic, noir filmmaking. This felt modern and contemporary and approachable, and it's one of the reasons why I wanted to take it on."
Mr. Haynes said before he made the new "Mildred Pierce," he considered films of the '70s such as "The Godfather," "The Exorcist" and "Chinatown," and how a new generation of filmmakers brought a modern sense to classic genre pictures.
"We were still dealing with a piece of classic American popular fiction in 'Mildred Pierce' and wanted to honor that and honor its bigger-than-life aspects, but at the same time, bringing elements out of it that might have been overlooked in the original production that was so codified and stylized that you missed the real human nuances and human conditions that made it feel incredibly modern and relevant, and I think we did accomplish that."
Ms. Winslet said the goal of the miniseries was to remain as true to the book as possible -- including a different conclusion from the film for Veda's career trajectory.
"I think that in Veda, Mildred saw her own disappointments," Ms. Winslet said. "Like little pieces of Mildred kept dying every time she saw how brilliant and wonderful and rich Veda was and how much more extraordinary her life could become, and all she could do was love it, encourage it, support it and want to be a part of it so, so desperately."
Former WPXI weekend morning anchor Danielle Nottingham has landed a network job. She's joined CBS Newspath, the network's news service that distributes national news stories to CBS stations, including Pittsburgh's KDKA-TV.
Ms. Nottingham will be based in Washington, D.C.
She worked at Pittsburgh's Channel 11 from 2008 until last month, when she left WPXI. She previously was a weekend anchor at WDJT-TV in Milwaukee, Wis., and a morning anchor at WCIV-TV in Charleston, S.C.
"We're pleased to have Danielle join CBS Newspath's team of remarkable correspondents," said John Frazee, senior vice president of news services in a prepared statement. "Her talents and outstanding reporting will make her a welcome addition."
Ms. Nottingham received a master's in communication studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a bachelor's degree in speech communication from Syracuse University.
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Today's TV Q&A column responds to questions about "No Ordinary Family," "Ebert Presents at the Movies" and HD channels on Comcast. This week's Tuned In Journal includes posts on the series finale of "Big Love," "Parks and Recreation" and "Marcel's Quantum Kitchen." Read online-only TV content at www.post-gazette.com/tv.
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First Published March 25, 2011 12:00 am