‘Mildred Pierce’ Parts 1-3 Recap: “All the Cake in the World”

It should first be said that I think that Todd Haynes is one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers. In just a handful of films, he has cemented himself as a bold visionary, one who looks to interpret various aspects of popular culture and, in doing so, create something wholly new and unique. It’s with this knowledge that you should proceed ahead, as I will also try to put myself in the shoes of a non-Haynesaholic, to review the first three sections of HBO’s ‘Mildred Pierce’ miniseries.

This is, of course, the second adaptation of the James M. Cain novel. The 1945 Warner Bros. movie directed by Michael Curtiz won Joan Crawford an Academy Award. That film, which I do adore to a fairly deep degree (it was co-written by William Faulkner and swims in juicy, campy atmosphere), has its feet firmly planted in the film noir style of the time. It emphasizes the story’s luridness, with a strong melodramatic backbone.

Haynes’ ‘Mildred Pierece’, which stars Kate Winslet in the title role, has time to luxuriate. It’s nearly 6 hours long, and it’s in no hurry to get its stylistic ya-yas out. In fact, what might be so startling about the first sections of the miniseries is how long they take to really get going. While there’s a flash of passion (and nudity) towards the end of the second part, things get into a groove and Haynes, who has a scientist’s skill for observation and a poet’s penchant for empathy, mostly just settles us into Mildred’s life.

Set during the 1930s Depression, Mildred is confronted with an unfaithful husband. Instead of sticking around and enduring the emotional abuse and general indignity, she strikes out on her own. She’s a single woman, with two young children (one of whom, Veda, will be played by Evan Rachel Wood in later installments). This isn’t a great position to be in. In one haunting scene, she wanders through the grocery store, looking at the change in her hand, and is forced to put back a few carrots.

While there isn’t an abundance of plot in these first three installments, the searing emotional portrait of a woman on the verge (and her painful relationship with her two children) is plenty compelling. Instead of film noir (which it could easily veer into in future sections), Haynes roots it in melodrama, but the miniseries is never overblown or oversized. Unlike his Douglas Sirk-ish masterpiece ‘Far From Heaven’, ‘Mildred Pierce’ never flirts with camp.

The most striking thing about the film, at least in the first three parts, is how affectless it is. Haynes, notably, has riffed on a number of subjects in the pop culture sphere, most wonderfully the mythos of Bob Dylan in 2007’s experimental, totally captivating ‘I’m Not There’. Some might mistake his chameleonic résumé as being without a distinctive style, but that’s not the case. Thematically, he’s always been interested in the inner lives of women (even if that woman is Bob Dylan). Visually, there’s always a kind of epic sweep, even if the subject matter is teensy tiny. But here, he drops any pretense or staginess. He’s not riffing on anything, certiainly not the original 1945 film. Instead, he’s doing a more “straight” adaptation of the Cain novel. And it’s just as genius as anything else he’s done.

The final two episodes of the miniseries air this Sunday on HBO. If you don’t know the story and found the first few sections a little snoozy, hang in there. The shit is most definitely about to hit the fan.

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