With its themes of feminist aspiration, domestic discord, capitalist excess, Greek tragedy and outsiderdom, James M. Cain’s 1941 novel would seem tailor-made for a deconstructionist like Haynes. The surprise of Mildred Pierce—his superb five-part miniseries for HBO—is that he’s kept his trademark irony in check: The movie is not shot in an anachronistic style, like his Sirk pastiche Far from Heaven (2002), and there are no flagrant conceptual gambits to overwhelm the storytelling. Haynes barely even alludes to the 1945 Joan Crawford noir, a landmark text for semiotics students. Working with material so sensational that his underlines aren’t needed, Haynes allows the narrative to speak for itself—which may be why it’s his best film since Safe (1995).
Like that movie, Mildred Pierce is set in California, long a crucible in film and literature for testing the luridness and loneliness of the American dream. Haynes and cowriter Jon Raymond stick much more closely to the novel than the Crawford film without ever chaining themselves to it, following single mother Mildred (Winslet, in this year’s performance of her career) as she rises from a waitress to the head of a self-built restaurant empire. It’s all in the name of providing for her chronically ungrateful daughter Veda (played by a wonderfully petulant Turner as a child and a sultry, sashaying Wood beginning in part four), whose toxic class snobbery is alien to Mildred but for whom she never fails to pay for piano lessons.
First and foremost, the movie deserves praise as a vivid portrait of Depression-era life. Re-creating 1930s Los Angeles with minimal means in New York and in studio, the film conveys a palpable sense of a city in transition. Much of the movie is given over to the engrossing strategy of Mildred’s rise: how to wait tables, how to run a restaurant, how to manage the books. It’s critical that her success comes at a time when most people were flat broke, and the depiction of class antagonism is particularly compelling. Her on-off romance with washed-up fruit magnate Monty (Pearce, nailing Gable-ish suavity in his best performance since L.A. Confidential) is an unusually rich mix of passion and pragmatism.
The leisurely runtime accords the film an uncommon poignancy and complexity: It opens with Mildred’s husband, Bert (O’Byrne), walking out, but over the years, they form a bond that goes beyond simple definitions of romance, love or betrayal. Credit Cain for creating these characters, but Haynes gives them full room to breathe, even on the periphery. LeGros’s portrayal of lawyer friend Wally is a particularly compelling blend of sleaze and competence—the movie’s most noirish character.
And while the quotation marks have been removed, Haynes’s filmed film criticism is still there: There’s a bit of reverse–Citizen Kane when Veda finds success as an opera singer, and there are echoes of Haynes’s idol Rainer Werner Fassbinder both structurally (as in Berlin Alexanderplatz, more than half of the miniseries passes before one of the female leads appears) and thematically. Mildred’s arrangement with Monty recalls a similar brokering in Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends.
But it’s Winslet’s movie, ultimately, and it’s hard to think of another actress who could move so fluidly between the buttoned-up rectitude of the “women’s picture” and a casual carnality that owes at least as much to revisionist entertainments like Mad Men as it does to the cinema of the past. Mildred Pierce proves once and for all that Haynes is as much a melodramatist as a theorist. If the new Mildred Pierce is a simulacrum of anything, it’s that of a first-rate miniseries.