Mildred Pierce…for a New Millennium

Based on early reviews, we attended the New York premiere of the first two episodes of HBO’s new miniseries "Mildred Pierce" with three core expectations:

1. Todd Haynes’ rendition would be considerably different than Michael Curtiz's 1945’s film-noir mystery;
2. Devotees of the James Cain novel would definitely be pleased;
3. Kate Winslet’s performance would not disappoint.

Within the first fifteen minutes, we were satisfied that these three criteria were met and even exceeded our expectations. To those unfamiliar with James Cain’s 1941 novel, Mildred Pierce tells the story of a California housewife who gives her unfaithful husband the boot and takes on the challenge of supporting her two daughters during the Great Depression. However, the real meat of the story comes from Mildred’s relationship with her malicious eldest daughter, Veda, and Mildred's lothario boyfriend, Monty Beragon. Rather than giving a frame-by-frame comparison of how Haynes' version differs from Curtiz's, we think it more valuable to point out three areas in which Haynes’ recent interpretation succeeds in presenting a more faithful retelling of the original source material.

The Struggle

James Cain devoted countless pages to describing Mildred’s struggle for survival for good reason. It didn't happen overnight, as one may believe after watching Joan Crawford's Mildred transition from waitress to restaurateur in the course of five minutes. We were appreciative that Mildred’s struggle is patiently rendered on screen, especially when it comes to one scene in particular. The pivotal moment as Mildred goes from a lady lunching to a working woman is shot perfectly, as the audience sees through Mildred’s eyes the skepticism she faces from the restaurant staff and society overall on her ability to succeed.

The Men

The three central male characters, Bert Pierce, Wally Burgan, and Monty Beragon, are exactly that – three distinct characters. One fault we found with the 1945 film is that all the men in Mildred’s life seemed to be cast from the same cookie-cutter, tough-guy template. In particular, we were impressed with Guy Pearce's role as Monty. He embodies the lazy playboy with a smug charm that makes the audience fall for him as hard as Mildred does. One passionate scene in particular between Pearce and Winslet conveyed their fervent attraction.

The Veda

It seems appropriate to refer to her as “The Veda,” as Veda Pierce (Morgan Tuner and then Evan Rachel Wood) is like an otherworldly creature that was plucked from her throne and dropped into the middle-class suburb of Glendale as an endurance test to see how long she could survive without the lavish grandeur she is accustomed to. The Hollywood Reporter questions the believability of the mother-daughter relationship on the grounds that it is not understandable why Veda behaves the way she does, or more importantly, why Mildred puts up with it. The book goes into greater detail about Veda's snobbish nature, but Haynes' film did not overlook this critical detail. As Mildred begs her neighbor, Lucy, to not tell Veda about her job as a waitress, she explains: "You don't understand her. She has something in her that I thought I had, and now I find I haven't. Pride, or whatever it is. Nothing on earth could make Veda do what I'm going to do."

We are eager to see the rest of "Mildred Pierce," mainly to witness Evan Rachel Wood’s portrayal of Veda.  For those who have both read the book and seen the original film, do you have room in your heart to love another retelling of "Mildred Pierce"?