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HBO’s ‘Mildred Pierce’ has a little too much class

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Kate Winslet stars as Mildred Pierce.

Despite its author’s reputation as a writer of hard-boiled crime novels, James M. Cain’s 1941 novel Mildred Pierce features no murder or detectives, only a headstrong woman brought down by her own pride and her misguided love for her ungrateful daughter. That might have been too complex for Hollywood to handle, and the 1945 film adaptation, starring Joan Crawford as the title character, grafted a murder mystery onto the story, changing Cain’s domestic tragedy into a more recognizable film noir.

For his new five-part miniseries version, director and co-writer Todd Haynes has gone back to the source, losing the murder and adapting Cain’s novel with painstaking detail. The problem with Haynes’ take on the material, though, is that it comes across as a little too reverent—it’s more of an antiseptic museum piece than an engaging drama, despite capable acting and impeccable craftsmanship. Kate Winslet ably takes over from Crawford as Mildred, giving a more emotional, subdued performance that focuses on Mildred’s neediness rather than her righteous fury. Left alone with her two young daughters during the Depression when her husband takes up with another woman, Mildred rises through hard work from waitressing in a diner to owning a chain of three successful restaurants.

The Details

Mildred Pierce
two and a half stars
March 27, April 3, April 10, 9 p.m., HBO

Along the way, she takes up with an indolent playboy (Guy Pearce) and does everything in her power to please her older daughter, Veda (played as a child by Morgan Turner and as a young woman by Evan Rachel Wood). Mildred’s relationship with Veda forms the core of the story, and both Turner and Wood do an excellent job of conveying just how vicious, hateful and condescending Veda is, constantly manipulating and berating her mother in order to further her own selfish agenda. Ann Blyth’s Veda in the 1945 film is one of the great villains of classic cinema, and while Haynes aims for a more realistic tone, he still allows Turner and Wood to depict the extremes of Veda’s monstrosity.

Even the extremes feel a bit stifled, though, and Haynes, normally a daring stylist, seems to be trying too hard to evoke a classic feel. Instead of a bold reinvention, Mildred Pierce is a meticulous diorama, less exciting and fresh than the version made nearly 70 years ago.

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