Whatever filmmaker Todd Haynes is serving, it must be a pretty powerful potion, able to bend top producers, actors, set decorators and the people who run HBO to his will in order to create a luxuriously new “Mildred Pierce” mini-series that clocks in at nearly six hours in length and squeezes every last ounce of disciplined energy from its star, Kate Winslet — to say nothing of the energy it will require of its audience. Haynes has even arm-twisted present-day Long Island into doing a reasonable impression of Pasadena, Calif., in the 1930s. (The New York sun was made to cooperate, too, to provide that dusty California light.)
Although Haynes hasn’t made many feature films over the past 20 years, his work has been memorably moody, meticulously crafted and critically praised, including 1995’s “Safe,” a rumination on toxicity and paranoia; 2002’s “Far From Heaven,” which explored domestic suffocation within picture-perfect ’50s suburbaphilia; and “I’m Not There,” a trippy collage about the elusive artistry of a Bob Dylan analogue, in which a gallery of actors shared the lead role.
View a scene from “Mildred Pierce.”
There seems to be no reason whatsoever for Haynes to embark on a faithfully detailed, page-for-page adaptation of “Mildred Pierce,” James M. Cain’s 1941 novel about a newly divorced Southern California woman who builds financial independence and a degree of self-assurance during the Great Depression only to be undermined and betrayed by an ungrateful, spoiled-rotten daughter.
Yet here it is. The only thing viewers can assume of Haynes’s occasionally splendid, certainly sprawling, five-part “Mildred Pierce” epic (beginning Sunday night on HBO) is that everyone involved believed it would be a marvelous idea.
They weren’t wrong. This “Mildred Pierce” is similar to but altogether different from the noir-ish 1945 Joan Crawford movie. In that “Mildred Pierce,” the story of a morally malleable woman navigating the precarious paths between middle- and working-classdom wouldn’t suffice on its own, so producers tarted “Mildred Pierce” up with a murder.
But time has been especially kind to the ideas contained within Cain’s novel. With Oscar-winner Winslet as Mildred (she appears in almost every scene) and with the Great Recession and the specters of foreclosure and bankruptcy still spooking our national psyche, “Mildred Pierce” easily resonates with themes of entrepreneurial gumption and an on-again/off-again proto-feminism.
It begins in 1931. Mildred’s failed real estate developer husband (Brian F. O’Byrne) moves out, leaving Mildred a “grass widow” (in the words of her neighbor and confidante, played by Melissa Leo). Desperate to stay afloat and still appear middle-class, Mildred takes a day job as a lunch-counter waitress in Hollywood.
The internalized shame brought on by this descent into working-class life sets the template for the whole story. Mildred tries to keep her job secret from her eldest daughter, Veda, a precocious and sly adolescent given to MGM grandiloquence and melodramatic tantrums. The Pierce household is the opposite of “Mommie Dearest” and something more along the lines of “The Bad Seed.” Mildred believes Veda to be destined for something special, something Mildred herself wanted but never had.