Mildred Pierce (episodes 1-2)

episodes 1-2 | episode 3 | episodes 4-5

Todd Haynes' new HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce is a fresh adaptation of the James M. Cain novel that had previously been adapted for Michael Curtiz's 1945 film of the same name. Haynes' expansive five-part miniseries, the first two parts of which aired on Sunday as a single two-hour block, takes its cues from the novel, rather than from Curtiz's noirish, overheated Joan Crawford melodrama. In the process, this new version expands into a potent, sprawling epic of the Depression era woman. Mildred (Kate Winslet) is placed in a difficult situation when she finally pushes her no-good husband Bert (Brian O'Byrne) out the door, sick of his laziness and his philandering with another woman. Mildred becomes a "grass widow," caring for her daughters Veda (Morgan Turner) and Ray (Quinn McColgan) on her own, making do at first with the meager proceeds from selling homemade pies, while she searches for a job in an economy with very few real prospects.

The signal virtue of Haynes' film is its meticulous attention to the economic realities of its era. In countless small details in the first episode of the series, Haynes emphasizes how every penny, every nickel, every dime must be carefully managed. On Mildred's first shopping trip after her husband leaves, she places items into her basket, weighing each one in her hand as she looks at the price, and Haynes pulls in for a tight closeup on the shopping basket as she mentally calculates the total cost, finally discarding an item that would push her over her budget. Later, when she gets a job as a waitress, her new employers make a point of telling her that the cost of her uniform will be deducted from her first check, and that any discrepancies at her tables will also be deducted, and that she'll have to buy her own shoes. The costs tally up quickly. As Mildred tells Veda in the second episode, everything in their lives, everything they own, has a cost, and Haynes makes sure that that cost is felt concretely, that every penny of it feels like it matters.

Haynes is similarly meticulous with every aspect of the film. The 1930s setting is believably tangible without any showy period touches; there's simply a constant sense of physicality in such details as Mildred's drab and obviously cheap undergarments, or the fruit vendors lined up along a cobbled street, or the tattoos on the arm of a blood donor, suggesting that only a lower-class man would be donating blood in this society, in this era. Haynes evokes the era with a direct but stylish aesthetic, using mostly pale, muted colors that add to the sense of reality. He's constantly shooting through glass, through windows that slightly distort and filter the view outside, as when Mildred is seen, contemplating her dim economic prospects, through the filthy front window of a diner, her face made indistinct by the gray grime layered on the glass. This is a film that is very much about the economic realities of the Depression for a single woman trying to provide for herself and her family, so the film's verisimilitude is vitally important. It also definitively sets Haynes' adaptation of the Cain novel apart from the famous 1945 Joan Crawford film, which not only shifted the story's era from the Depression to the then-current mid-1940s, but also offered an overheated vision very far removed from the physical and emotional realism of Haynes' version.

In that respect, Kate Winslet's performance as Mildred is a key component of the film's effect. Comparisons to Crawford are perhaps inevitable, but misplaced since Winslet's performance is in an entirely different register from her predecessor in this role. There's no melodrama in Winslet's performance, no excess. It's a warm, nuanced embodiment of a woman who, in the early scenes of the film, simply and abruptly decides that she's sick of the life she's been living, and over the course of the first two episodes begins to realize what she'd like to replace that life with. The first shot of the film is a closeup on Mildred's hands as she prepares pies for baking; Haynes immediately thrusts the audience into Mildred's world, a world of work and effort. In the subsequent scene, what starts as a routine conversation between Mildred and Bert — one immediately senses that they've had similar tense discussions many times — goes off-track when Mildred unexpectedly and casually drops the name of the woman that she knows Bert has been going to see. It's a remarkable moment, the truth suddenly bubbling up from out of this routine marital conversation, and afterward Mildred doesn't even quite seem to realize why she forced this confrontation, she just knows that she's reached a breaking point. Maybe it's the casual way that Bert says, "I don't see what else I can do around here," the careful phrasing of which Haynes utterly mocks because the audience can easily see the dirty pans and dishes stacked around the kitchen, while Mildred sits at the table working on yet another pie.

The film provides plenty of opportunities for Winslet to portray the complexities of this remarkable woman. In one scene from the second episode, when Mildred and Bert discuss finally getting a divorce and making their separation official and permanent, their conversation covers a wide range of emotions. The splitting couple is initially acrimonious and on edge, exchanging harsh words about one another's choices in romantic partners — Mildred has become involved with Bert's former business partner Wally (James LeGros) — but they soon begin gently joking about their situation, trying to laugh it off, and in their banter is visible a glimmer of the attraction they once must have felt for each other. The moment of warmth and humor segues seamlessly into tears, with Mildred breaking down, her face screwed up in anguish. It's a wonderful scene, a powerful acting showcase for Winslet especially, and it suggests the broad emotional palette that Haynes is working with here, tapping into the rich essence of Mildred's story and mining it for genuine, heartfelt drama rather than overwrought melodrama.

In the final act of the first episode, Winslet's Mildred conveys a sense of utter horror and desperation as she comes to grips with the prospect of having to lower herself in status in order to provide for her family. This class consciousness is most powerfully felt in a scene where Mildred goes for an interview to work as a maid in the house of a rich woman. Again and again throughout this sequence, Haynes holds one uncomfortable moment after another, allowing several beats to go by as Mildred attempts to swallow her pride, to choke down the bile rising up within her middle-class soul at being treated like a lowly servant. It starts when she knocks on the front door of the house, gets one look from the black servant who answers the door, and is immediately told to go around to the back. The door slams in Mildred's face, and Haynes holds the shot of her standing there, stunned into immobility. He holds the shot again after Mildred meets with the woman of the house and is told that she can't sit down without being told, causing Mildred to look startled again and stand up. When a second later the woman tells Mildred to sit down, the way Mildred holds her body, rail-straight and poised, suggests her pride struggling within her, resisting these demands for obedience and subservience.

Mildred is a very proud woman, and also a very tough one, a woman both of her time and astonishingly modern, even now. The film's portrait of Mildred constantly suggests the tension between the modern woman she's being forced to become and the conventional housewife she'd perhaps once been. Part of this is a growing sense of practicality, accepting that becoming a waitress to feed her family is nothing to be ashamed of — though she still can't bring herself to reveal her new job to her daughter Veda, who has very un-practical ideas about social standing and propriety, setting the stage for the conflicts that will drive the later chapters of this saga.

Mildred's modernity is refreshingly conveyed in the scenes from the series' second episode in which she first meets the wealthy but terminally lazy Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) and impulsively decides to accept his flirtatious invitation to join him at his beach house. The sex scene between the two newly acquainted lovers is earthy and intense, emphasizing the straining muscles in Monty's forearms as his hand rests on the bed, holding up his body. Haynes' camera drifts sensually across the lovers' bodies, exploring the junction points between them, emphasizing the sweaty and surprisingly unglamorous contact between the toned Monty (with his dark brown tan, a product of empty days with nothing to do but lay on the beach) and the middle-aged but still sexy and curvy Mildred. Haynes purposefully contrasts this passionate scene, and the relaxed post-coital conversation of the lovers, against Mildred's comparatively awkward and passionless encounters with Wally, who she falls into bed with out of mere convenience and confusion. Haynes plays the sex with Wally for laughs: Wally gropes Mildred and they stumble around the room, nearly collapsing onto the bed, and as Mildred putters around her room afterward, Wally sits on the bed, balancing an ashtray on his rounded belly, an irredeemable comic figure.

Of course, Mildred's beachside interlude with Monty is followed by the tragic and heartrending conclusion to the second episode — culminating in a very lengthy final shot, a sustained look at Mildred's grief before a discrete pan around the corner to a dark wall — but even before this ending, the scenes at the beach with Monty resonate as a contrast against the rest of the film. It's a moment when Mildred is lifted out of her working class life, freed from the responsibilities of work even if only for a day. In a way, that's what attracts her to Monty, as suggested by the expression of mingled excitement and disgust that flashes across her face when she realizes that Monty doesn't actually do anything in his life, merely cashes the dividend checks he receives from his inherited family business. For Mildred, that's a glimpse of a whole other life, far removed from the bustling world of the restaurant, from the kneading of dough to make pies, from the necessity of counting every cent that buys her groceries. It all comes back to that grounding in the economic realities of the era in which the film is set, its emphasis on what money — and the lack of it, and the desire for it — really means.