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Mildred Pierce [DVD] [Import]
In Michael Curtiz's hands, James M. Cain's novel Mildred Pierce became a suburban noir, but Todd Haynes spins a more class-conscious tale in this HBO miniseries. The Depression is in effect when Mildred (Kate Winslet, ably filling Oscar-winner Joan Crawford's formidable shoes) breaks with her unfaithful husband, Bert (Brían F. O'Byrne), leaving the Glendale housewife to support her daughters as a waitress and part-time baker (cinematographer Ed Lachman brings her confections to delectable life). To keep up the middle-class façade, only neighbor Lucy (a fine Melissa Leo) knows about her blue-collar day job.
By protecting 11-year-old Veda (Morgan Turner) from the truth, however, Mildred encourages her snobbish tendencies, but then her pastry-making skills allow her to open a chain of restaurants with help from Lucy, feisty colleague Ida (Mare Winningham), and opportunistic realtor Wally (James LeGros, Safe), with whom she has a fling. That ends when she falls for playboy Monty (a dashing Guy Pearce), who takes a shine to Veda, at which point the girl becomes truly insufferable. The first time Mildred slaps her, it's hard not to suppress a cheer. The second time: Veda slaps her mother back. In 1937, when Mildred finally kicks her out (Evan Rachel Wood plays the teenaged Veda), you'll wonder why she didn't do it sooner.
Since 1941, audiences have debated Mildred's attempts to buy her daughter's love. Was Veda a bad seed or did slack parenting make her that way? In ditching the murder of the Curtiz film, Haynes and cowriter Jon Raymond (Meek's Cutoff) lend clarity to her motivations. Despite some awkward staging towards the end, Haynes directs with grace, and his cast rises to the occasion, particularly Winslet and O'Byrne. "Sometimes," Mildred tells Veda, "I wonder if you have good sense." The phrase applies equally well to her mother. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
On to the themes. I have to strongly disagree with the reviewer who said that Vida's dialogue sounded like it came from a book and was a script flaw. Vida's affectations are a central detail to the central theme of the film: social climbing during the Great Depression, and conflicts of class. Everything Mildred does, practically, is to nurture and shelter Vida from harsh reality. She doesn't want her to see her uniform, she wants to buy her a proper piano, etc etc. Like many parents, she wants a better life for Vida and shares in her pride against lower class work and living. But Mildred is conflicted between living through her daughter's aspirations and being prisoner to them, and being the butt of her contempt.
But Vida lives in a semi-fantasy world, very much a Hollywood thing, of being upper class. Mildred tells her to knock of the affectations a couple of times in the movie. But the artificiality of her stilted speech is a great signifier of who Vida is: a middle class kid who probably got her ideas about class from Hollywood movies, which in the 1930s had a lot of depictions of the upper class lounging in penthouses in silk gowns and tuxes. When Monty comes along, he is everything Vida wants to be, and she as well as Monty look down on Mildred for her middle-class ways. Vida's pretentious diction is an embodiment of who she is and what drives the movie: a relentless social climber (she'll even blackmail to get money). This detail resonates with me because I have known people like this who are affected social climbers who speak in an accent from nowhere; social climbers live in an interstitial zone of class and their accents are what they *think* an upper class person speaks like. It does come from books and movies, because they did not grow up upper class. I grew up with this kind of thing; my father grew up in the 1930s and does not have the accent of the rest of the family. He uses semi-british pseudo-aristo phrases like "lovely chap" even though we are from the midwest and lower middle class. I think this comes from growing up during the Great Depression, in which this film is set, and living through escapist Hollywood glamour. Even the Hollywood actors had a fake pseudo-accent that was invented for Hollywood films when sound first entered film; glamorous stars' New Yawk accents came out and they were given elocution lessons.
Speech is very much a class signifier and this film perfectly nails class aspirations and conflicts.
Oh and Kate Winslet is perfect.
Haynes' series is beautifully filmed and brilliantly cast. The story turns around Mildred's older daughter, Veeda, and both actresses who portray her, Morgan Turner as the ultra-sophisticated teen, and Evan Rachel Wood, the high-strung opera singer are each worth the price of admission. Kate Winslet is perfectly cast in the title role. James Le Gros, Brian O'Byrne and Guy Pearce fill in Cain's original vision perfectly. And what a treat to see Mare Winninghham in a character role.