Glendale, California, 1931: Mildred Pierce, a young mother with a talent for baking, is left a "grass widow" after throwing her husband, Bert, out of the house. Forced to hunt for work to support herself and her two young daughters, 11-year-old Veda and seven-year-old Ray, Mildred visits an employment agency, only to encounter job opportunities she feels are beneath her. Amidst her job search, she receives dating advice from her friend and neighbor, Lucy Gessler, and begins an unexpected affair with an ex-business partner of her husband's, Wally Burgan. When Mildred receives a call from the agency regarding an opening as a housekeeper to a wealthy socialite, she reluctantly agrees to meet with her. After cutting the acerbic interview short, Mildred seeks refuge at a local diner, Cristofor's Café, where fate, and a waitress named Ida, will play a role in shaping her future. Written by
Although "Mildred Pierce" was originally a novel, the story is familiar to most people as a glossy 1945 film noir in which Joan Crawford suffers in furs as her ungrateful daughter (Ann Blyth) steals her boyfriend (Zachary Scott). Strangely enough, the most engaging and gripping sections of this nearly 6-hour extravaganza of middle-class yearnings are not just the more heated of the mother-daughter battles but the painful struggle of the title character to find a job in a Depression-ravaged economy and a micro-examination of the frantic and messy business of running a restaurant, including the heartening camaraderie of the kitchen and wait staff.
There is much attention to the details of craftsmanship pianistic, vocal, culinary, architectural, managerial and sartorial. When the movie concentrates on these matters it zips by, so sure is the treatment. The musical underscoring, always a key element in the evocation of the antique past, is too shrill at first but improves as the episodes unfold. For some reason Todd Haynes and his composer Carter Burwell have chosen to hammer us over the head at the start with a very loud jazzy piece, which is a bad idea because it obstructs the establishment of our acquaintance with the Pierce family. As the series progresses the musical elements are toned down. Mildred's theme song throughout is, appropriately enough, "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows."
The accomplished Kate Winslet flattens out her melodious native Britspeak yet again to impersonate a drab American housewife. How many such roles has she played by now? I've lost count. It's a consciously colorless rendering of an intelligent, strong and very feminine woman, but not the type of woman who would stop traffic or even try to. The supporting actors are the ones with personality texture: Melissa Leo as a good-natured neighbor and business partner, Mare Winningham as a tough but sweet co-worker (speaking with a "New Yawk"-style twang like one of those sassy blondes from 30's movies), Guy Pearce as the corrupt hedonistic boyfriend, Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood as child and adult versions of Mildred's warped and snobby daughter Veda. Brian F. O'Byrne as Mildred's estranged husband is just warm and tender enough to evoke some sympathy.
The production is so meticulously produced and masterfully photographed that you can get lost in the visual details but the scale is too large for the smallness of the story.
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