The Films of 2011: Mildred Pierce

So what if it played on HBO instead of at the cineplex?  Todd Haynes’ five-hour miniseries Mildred Pierce (which aired back in March and is now available on DVD) is one of the finest filmic achievements of the year, a sprawling, intricately detailed, compulsively watchable weepie that deserves to be ranked with his masterpieces Poison, Safe, and Far From Heaven.  It’s also destined to go down as one of Kate Winslet’s most staggering performances: as the title character, she more than fills the shoes of Joan Crawford, who originated the role in Michael Curtiz’s much looser 1942 adaptation of the James M. Cain novel.  

If Curtiz’s Mildred is often classified as “noir for women,” Haynes’ version is pure melodrama.  A single mother determined to provide a better life for her daughters at any cost, Mildred opens a modest chicken eatery in Depression-era Glendale and becomes an overnight sensation, but, in keeping with the rules of the genre, she’s persistently haunted by her “failings” as a mother.  Though Mildred has an on-again, off-again romance with a shady businessman (Guy Pearce), the real romance in the film is the one between Mildred and her viperish prodigal daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood), for whom she sacrifices everything and whose approval she relentlessly seeks.  Set over nine years, the film—which moves at a wonderfully relaxed pace—is able to show how circuitously relationships move, and how mothers, daughters, lovers keep re-playing the same scenes over and over again, incapable of disentangling themselves from one another. 

In its sheer dramatic power, Mildred Pierce is certainly Haynes’ most emotionally affecting work.  Critics have praised the film for seemingly eschewing his usual stylistic flourishes in favor of a more straightforward approach.  But Haynes (well-versed in critical theory, postmodernism, and semiotics) is incapable of playing anything straight, and though his directorial hand here seems invisible, it’s more likely that Mildred Pierce is his (very successful) attempt to “do” the television miniseries, with its unobtrusive editing and dramatic fervor.  The difference seems rather to be that here (as opposed to some of his more frustrating work, like 2005’s I’m Not There) he doesn’t sacrifice content to form; or perhaps the form he’s tackling here is so irresistibly engaging that it’s hard not to be sucked into the story of this selfless mother and her ungrateful spawn.

But credit must also go to Winslet, who reminds us here why she’s probably the most talented actress of her generation.  The scope and expanse of this film allow her to sound nearly every note in her range: the fury of a woman scorned, the dogged ruthlessness of a desperate caregiver, a mother’s borderline-irrational devotion to her children.  Her effortless line readings are even able to bring the script’s often cumbersomely antiquated dialogue (much of it apparently taken verbatim from Cain’s novel) to life.  Winslet is onscreen for every scene of this five-hour film, and there’s not a moment when we feel her performance starting to drag.  Like Mildred herself, she’s tireless, and she emerges triumphant.         

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