You might have heard about a new HBO five part mini series called Mildred Pierce. It’s a new TV show starring Kate Winslet and directed by Todd Haynes, but the story has been around for quite some time. Published in 1941, Mildred Pierce was originally a book by James M. Cain, author of ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’. The book soon became a film, one for which Joan Crawford’s performance gained her the only Oscar of her career. There’s even a Sonic Youth song about it. But what’s it about?…and why is it being remade now?
Mildred Pierce is set in California during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Without giving away too much of the story Mildred Pierce is a single mother, who – when abandoned by her philandering husband takes a job as a waitress in order to support her two small daughters. Slowly building an empire out of nothing, Mildred claims her life back and turns her limited skills into a successful business. It may sound like a typical ‘rags to riches’ tale but it’s much more than that. The real focus of the story is on the highly complex relationship between Mildred and her two daughters, tackling issues around shame, pride and specifically class. There are also some fascinating cultural differences to be seen around dating, divorce and romance in an era that seems positively repressed in comparison to our modern lives. But mostly it’s a story about female empowerment, and the sacrifices people make to get ahead.
Sad tales of the Great Depression sound more like a news article you would read today, than a cautionary tale from a history book. So it’s almost perfect timing to bring Mildred Pierce to a new audience. Tales of empowerment, industrious individuals and personal success are always popular to societies undergoing financial hardship. Where the original film was technically a Film Noir piece, the Haynes television show is more closely related to the book than to the film, and is a little more palatable than its noir predecessor. Hence the HBO TV show feels more like a melodrama, filmed in the same style as Far From Heaven, another of Haynes love letters to classic Hollywood cinema…the sets, costumes and locations are all beautiful.
Kate Winslet has some big shoes to fill of course, who would really want to take on a role made famous by someone like Joan Crawford? Mommie Dearest antics aside, Crawford was a great actress, and I’m sorry to say that Winslet’s performance, in places, feels a little like a very poor imitation of Crawford’s. I can’t quite work out whether or not that’s intentional but I have faith in the talent of both Winslet and Haynes, and shall reserve judgement until I’ve seen every episode. Despite being set in the 30’s there’s something about Mildred Pierce that makes it seem vital, it transcends the time period it’s set in, I only wish there were more than five parts. TV hasn’t been this good in years.
Mildred Pierce is screening on HBO and Sky Atlantic
Warren Beckett works full time as a powerful wizard, but moonlights as an online journalist. He likes talking in the third person. For frequent updates on how his hair looks follow his Twitter @WarrenBeckett