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How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth: An Advance Review of HBO's Mildred Pierce

"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is/To have a thankless child!" - William Shakespeare

A word to the wise: Don't go into HBO's Todd Haynes-directed mini-series Mildred Pierce, which begins Sunday, expecting the noir-tinged murder plot of the 1945 Joan Crawford film.

In adapting James M. Cain's novel--the basis for that famous film--writers Todd Haynes and Jon Raymond have hewed closely to the underlying material, rather than the sensationalized drama film with the same name, where the titular businesswoman, Mildred Pierce (Crawford), is suspected of killing her wealthy playboy husband, allegedly trading her pie weights for bullets. Here, there is no murder, no discussion of criminality, though the notion of maternal sacrifice looms large over the action.

Here, in Haynes' five-hour miniseries, Mildred Pierce is played by Kate Winslet, who gives her Mildred a brittleness and hubris-like pride that are wholly in keeping with McCain's original novel. When we first meet Mildred, she's a Depression-era "grass widow," having thrown her philandering and out of work husband Bert (Brian F. O'Byrne) to the gutter as she ices a cake. With two young daughters to support--saintly Ray (Quinn McColgan) and haughty Veda (initially played here by Morgan Turner), Mildred has to find some way to make ends meet as she's been struggling to hold onto her middle-class roots.

But in times of desperation (and the Depression), pride only gets you so far. Mildred's inability to see herself as anything other than a genteel housewife--one who makes cakes and pies for neighbors for cash--is holding her back from achieving financial solvency. Locked into a preconception of who she is and what her children can stomach, she's made her life about fulfilling her children's needs and filling their heads with nonsense about their station in life.

Her outmoded Victorian-era ideals of comportment and class don't mean a fig in the face of such wide-spread economic turmoil. Turning down a well-paid housekeeping job for the snobby wife (Hope Davis) of a Hollywood producer because she's a middle-class woman with her own home in Glendale, Mildred is finally forced to take a job as a waitress at a greasy spoon, though she conceals the nature of her employment--and her uniform--from her daughters.

But this is a melodrama, after all, and Mildred will have to learn not only the value of hard work and self-determination, but also suffer gut-wrenching loss and despair. As Mildred becomes more and more successful--turning her pie can-do into a chicken-and-waffle empire and bakery business--she's drawn deeper and deeper into a web of despair that she's pushed into by her lecherous blue-blood lover Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) and her daughter Veda (played in Parts Four and Five by Evan Rachel Wood).

This is the first half of the 20th century, after all, and Mildred might have discovered economic independence but she's still trapped by her role as a woman at a time when female sexuality was still something to be frowned upon and something to be cloistered at all costs. In giving into her desires, Mildred indirectly causes something catastrophic to occur to her family, as she's punished for giving into temptation.

As the years pass, it becomes clear that the central relationship in her life is between her and Veda, a willful child who develops into one of fiction's most horrific children, a changeling who is so spiteful, so evil, so horrible that her actions are shocking, even today. While Mildred embarks upon relationships with first her business manager Wally Burgan (James LeGros), and later Monty, it's Veda who is always at the forefront of her mind and her heart. Everything Mildred does, from launching her business to buying a piano, is done with Veda in mind, as she transforms herself from her "humble" origins into someone that Veda can be proud of. And part of that involves her relationship to the land-rich, cash-poor Monty, whose palatial estate sits forlorn and empty, its riches covered in sheets while Monty lives in servants' quarters at the back.

But even as Mildred undergoes her metamorphosis into the ideal that Veda has for her, nothing she does can ever please Veda's insatiable appetites: a fur coat becomes emblematic of indifferent consumption, a Christmas present symbolic of what's lacking, as Veda craves more, more, more; she's looking to consume Mildred body, soul, and pocketbook.

(Aside: it's worth mentioning the all-star cast, which ebbs and flows as the mini goes on, includes performances from Melissa Leo, here playing Mildred's friend Lucy Gessler, and Mare Winningham as the outspoken and brash Ida.)

The first three parts of Mildred Pierce focus on Mildred's upward momentum and the rumblings of trouble with Veda, but there's something missing from the rapport between Winslet and Turner. While there's nothing at all wrong with Turner's performance, there isn't enough of an emotional connection between the two, something that binds mother and daughter together by more than mere blood. It's all the more noticeable once the years pass by and--in Parts Four and Five--the role of Veda is taken over by Evan Rachel Wood.

It's these final two installments--which will air on a single night--that crackle with electricity, as these two women, trapped in a bitter and co-dependent relationship, finally square off. Veda's venomous nature becomes truly apparent here and every scene that Winslet and Wood share is a nerve-jangling affair, ripe with tension and heartache, overflowing with passion, betrayal, and, yes, melodramas.

In fact, it's here that Mildred Pierce truly springs to life after a slow-burn start. Winslet and Wood are sensational and the screen seems to sear every time they appear on-screen together, each pushing the other's performance to dizzying new heights. While the action largely revolves around Mildred's relationships with men and money, the final chapters pay off the struggles between Mildred and her awful daughter, peeling away Mildred's facade to reveal a woman who would sacrifice everything for her daughter, only to have it shoved back in her face. Vicariously living through Veda and her accomplishments, Mildred is shocked to discover that her daughter's voracity and contempt would consume her too.

I won't spoil the hugely tragic ending, but I will say that it is very much in keeping with McCain's original novel's trappings in period melodrama. Whether it's hubris that dooms Mildred or her pride, there's an innate sense of doom and loss about the bitter and heart-wrenching ending of Mildred Pierce. As Veda surveys the destruction she's left in her wake, she escapes for a glamorous new life in New York City, leaving her now-broken mother back where she was at the beginning of the series: back in that kitchen in Glendale, back making another pie, and thinking about where things went so wrong.

It's a testament to how far we've come as a society and how far women have come that Mildred's ultimate fate needn't be the same for today's women, and that, in weighing the future, one needn't attempt to live their lives through their husbands or their children. But, while women's roles and times have changed, there is still nothing that cuts to the bone quicker than Shakespeare's "thankless child." The sacrifices that Mildred makes for Veda are wasted on someone as self-absorbed and as destructive as Veda. Blood of her blood, she's the monster that Mildred births in more ways than one, and that's Mildred's sorrow and her undoing.

Parts One and Two of Mildred Pierce air Sunday, March 27th at 9 pm ET/PT on HBO.


Ask Rachel said…
The original film was fun but VERY campy. I'm excited to see Haynes' take on it and especially to see Winslet in the lead role. Thanks for the great review!

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