TV Review: Mildred Pierce (***)

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So now the five-part Mildred Pierce saga is over, and after its utterly fantastic conclusion had settled for me, I have to admit a slight tinge of disappointment at the series as a whole.  Now, clearly a three-star miniseries (borderline three-and-a-half) is nothing to sneer at, and I am still glad I took this journey.  But my nagging question of why one of the most creative and intelligent minds in cinema today would tackle this project remains unanswered.

Simply put, this was not the TV EVENT OF THE YEAR that I was anticipating.  And no, I do not think it’s because I wasn’t a huge fan of the original film, either.  For one thing, the original Mildred Pierce is a wholly different product; a shameless melodrama to this version’s slow-burn elegance.  Secondly, I would not call myself a die-hard fan of glam rock, Douglas Sirk melodramas (well, except Imitation of Life) or Bob Dylan, yet Haynes crafted intellectually bold and visually exhilarating masterpieces out of those subjects.  No, I think it’s because – for the first time ever for me – Todd Haynes put his obsessions with the textures of his story seemingly at arm’s length from his audience.  Or as my colleague Joey Magidson might say, I felt like that extra bit was missing.

That is not to say that there weren’t exciting elements of this series.  Far from it, there were an abundance of small moments flavored with delectable nuance and grace.  On that note, I have to extend the technical MVP to costume designer Ann Roth, who did a magnificent job of using her outfits not just to showcase her stars in well-dressed period wear but to invoke the rarely used tactics of fussiness and repetition in her characters’ threads to make observations about their situation.  We just don’t get that kind of cerebral costuming anymore, and I don’t think I’ll see any from a theatrical film this year to match it.  I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Edward Lachman’s amazing cinematography, once again using a sensuous color palette that fits its setting perfectly.  But I can’t defend, say, its editing.  The series’ glacial pacing did not get better or more understandable, and often became tiresome.

I still stand by my prediction of Kate Winslet being an Emmy threat.  She employs a similar domestic tempered approach to her character as she did in Little Children and Revolutionary Road, which was not Winslet at her absolute best, but she twists them here to surprising effect.  The build-up of her flaws and doubts were one of the most consistently interesting parts of the series, and she almost got me to accept the idea of her being old enough to plausibly be Evan Rachel Wood’s mother…almost.

Speaking of Wood, here’s where we get to another one of my problems with Mildred Pierce.  As Anna mentioned in her latest Women in Cinema column, Wood gives a wobbly and histrionic performance as the older Veda.  I do admit to admiring her unapologetic embracing of Veda’s contemptuousness, but it doesn’t amount to a whole lot, especially since we’ve seen her play the ungrateful teenager role several times already.  Of course, the biggest problem with that is it softens the impact of the standoffs between mother and daughter, which are supposed to be the most electrifying sequences in the series.  Instead, it’s the quiet moments that got to me, which isn’t a bad thing in of itself, but I can’t unequivocally worship a series that peaks and valleys in that way.

I did come close to adoring Mildred Pierce, especially after my initial gut reaction to the conclusion.  What an ending!  It was truly an emotionally wrenching epiphany that hit me hard and brought the series to a shocking, heartbreaking and layered finale.  It packed such an emotional punch that I decided to wait a while before writing a review, lest I overrate the series based solely on the enormous pay-off.  While I decided that I was still not totally enamored with it, I felt less disillusioned than before the final hour.
The supporting cast is overall very good, though some performers were more impressive than others.  Morgan Turner and Guy Pearce ended up letting me down somewhat; Turner as young Veda gave off a weird, Hailee Steinfeld-ish “I’m Acting!” stiffness (though some may argue that that was the point) and Pearce’s initial sizzling chemistry with Winslet disappeared almost as quickly as it materialized as the story progressed.  Melissa Leo fared better, though she had an occasional tendency to attack her Big Scenes a little too aggressively.  I kept thinking back to how Patricia Clarkson perfectly nailed the part of a similar character in Far from Heaven and Leo sort of falling short by comparison, though she still was entertaining as hell.  But the absolute best supporting players in this series were without a doubt Mare Winningham – who I’ll say again, has not been this great since Georgia – and Brían F. O’Byrne as Bert Pierce.  It was surprising how this guy grew on me as the series went on.  Of the entire cast, I am actually hoping the most for him to receive awards attention since he was surrounded by higher-profile stars and still managed to upstage nearly all of them.

Whether or not the series outside of its actors garners “Emmy buzz” is a different matter entirely.  I guess that all depends on whether or not voters have the same reservations as I do of it as a whole.  But awards postulation is a little presumptuous at this point.  For now, I’ll just stick to giving Mildred Pierce a qualified recommendation.