2011 HBO Miniseries Review: ‘Mildred Pierce’

By: 
Ben Miles
Kate Winslet as Mildred Pierce

“Mildred Pierce,” the HBO five-part miniseries now streaming on HBO Max, is premised on the 1941 novel, of the same title, by James M. Cain. This is makes twice that Cain’s potboiler has been adapted to the screen. A 1945 production of “Mildred Pierce” starring Joan Crawford preceded this 2011 HBO version by 66-years.

Directed by Todd Haynes (who along with Jon Raymond adapted Cain’s novel into this miniseries), with meticulous attention paid to time and place — although filmed entirely in various New York locations, the story takes place during the Great Depression and is a convincingly recreated Southern California, from Glendale to Santa Barbara to Laguna Beach with a reference to Long Beach’s so-called Pie Lady, Marie Callender, thrown in for good measure.

With wardrobe (costuming by Ann Roth), vehicles and setting designs (Mark Friedberg, production designer and set decoration by Ellen Christiansen) that replicate the look of the 1930s and a musical score by Carter Burwell that aligns with and enhances the sexual and emotion stirrings of the “Pierce” plot, this miniseries version of the “Mildred Pierce” story is nicely sautéed through Edward Lachman’s splendid cinematography.

But the praise does not cease here. After all, the acting is of top quality, as in the 1945 noir version of “Mildred Pierce,” for which Joan Crawford won the Best Actress Oscar for embodying the title role, Kate Winslet won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie for her interpretation of the complicated Mildred Pierce character.

The plot, while credible, also has a melodramatic sensibility that echos elements of a soap opera. As the story begins, Mildred is in an unhappy marriage with Bert Pierce (Brian F. O’Bryne), and is soon to divorce him. Complicated by having two daughters and suddenly being a single parent, Mildred is desperate to find employment; not so easily done during the Great Depression. So when offered a job as a waitress, Mildred is bound to accept it. This brings shame to her oldest daughter, Veda, for supposedly lowering the family’s social status (Morgan Turner plays Veda as a child; Evan Rachel Wood daringly performs as Veda as an adult).

Eventually, Mildred, a skilled baker of pies, opens her own restaurant, serving a limited menu of chicken and waffles and, of course, various iterations of pie. Her business is so successful that she expands her restaurants to several So Cal locales.

Yet “Mildred Pierce” is about more than a broken marriage, a disgruntled child, or the restaurant business. Adultery, sexual liaisons (Guy Pearce as Monty Beragon plays an essential role here), double-crossings and other quotidian struggles that apply to that period of the 20th century as well as to our own spot in the 21st century are examined in this marvelous 2011 remake of “Mildred Pierce,” now streaming on HBO Max.

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