MILDRED PIERCE (HBO) Parts 1 and 2 Advance Review

MILDRED PIERCE (HBO)  Part 2

MILDRED PIERCE (HBO) Parts 1 and 2 – Kate Winslet stars as a woman who must make a new life for herself and her two daughters after throwing her cheating husband out in the new five part HBO miniseries MILDRED PIERCE, which follows the title character’s tumultuous journey from 1931-1940. The first two installments air on HBO tonight, and they are darkly absorbing, if a tad on the slow side.

If you’ve seen the 1945 film starring Joan Crawford, shove any memories you have of it aside because this nuanced, leisurely miniseries is an entirely different animal. It takes its cues from James M. Cain’s 1941 novel instead, while Winslet’s performance is far more stripped down and raw than Crawford’s Oscar winning turn. It’s also, in many ways, much more effective in creating a whole, complex, and very fallible woman.

HBO is smart to air the first two parts together because the first hour is mostly spent introducing the characters, the setting, and the era. Fortunately, Mildred is arresting from the onset as she, in the space of three minutes, calls her husband out on everything from how he waters the lawn to his cheating, but her exasperation really isn’t about any of that as she explains to her no-nonsense friend Lucy (Melissa Leo). “I’ve got my own ideas and I can’t just change them for anyone else.” Husband gone, she is now faced with supporting herself and her daughters, the sunny Ray and the odious Veda.

To do so, Mildred battles not just her pride, but Veda’s, which, even at a tender age, is all-consuming. There aren’t many choices for women, and there are even fewer for those unwilling to bend their notions of social status. Her job search is humiliating and very relevant to today’s economic times, but she is too smart and determined to be kept down for long and her ingenuity once she does bend is impressive, even if Veda doesn’t necessarily agree. The family scenes are all wonderfully played, and while Ray often feels like an afterthought, that serves the story.

Winslet’s rich, captivating performance will rightfully garner the lion’s share of attention (she is in almost every frame, after all), but the acting is stellar across the board. Morgan Turner as the young, entitled Veda (Evan Rachel Wood won’t appear until part 4) is deliciously bratty as she slyly undercuts her mother. Leo gives yet another dynamic performance as the tough, straight-shooting Lucy. “Veda, if you ask me, has some funny ideas.” The men in Mildred’s life, husband Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne) and lovers Wally (James LeGros) and Monty (Guy Pearce) are all played to perfection and Pearce and Winslet have a heady, simmering heat between them from the moment they share the screen.

Mildred Pierce looks fantastic: from the gorgeous and scrupulously detailed sets and costumes to the rich cinematography, this production is spot on. The soft, muted lighting works perfectly with both the era and the quiet melodrama of the story. Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven) is a painstaking director-probably too painstaking. In setting the mood, many of his shots linger too long and there is too much repetition, dragging the film down in spots. Mildred Pierce is probably about an hour and a half longer than it needs to be overall, and a good portion of that comes in these first two installments. It’s a long slog from the exhilarating opening moments to the central events of part two, and I think a tightening of the action would have given more punch to the night’s climactic scene. This is not to say I was ever bored. I really wasn’t-it’s more that I was overly conscious of every leisurely panning shot and perfectly framed pause. When the artistry becomes the focus, the story can suffer.

Mildred Pierce is a powerful character study and an engrossing melodrama. These first two installments are the slowest and weakest, but they are still potent, engaging, and well worth your time.

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