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.
The Mildred/Veda dynamic could be easily milked for its camp value (it will be hard for old-movie fans to set aside the Crawford version and fully appreciate the nuance Haynes is aiming for here). Mildred’s love for Veda verges on obsession, and thus “Mildred Pierce” is really a mythological fable about mother-daughter animosity. When a tragic death befalls the family in Part 2, the relationship is permanently marred.
Mildred navigates the Depression with aplomb, opening a successful chain of eponymous home-style restaurants featuring her famous fruit pies and her chicken and waffles. She also discovers something like love with her second husband, a sporadically successful playboy named Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce, doing an ageless take on ’30s, pencil-mustache suave).
Veda matures into full brat-hood — the role segues from actress Morgan Turner to the full-on malevolent beauty of “True Blood” queen vampire Evan Rachel Wood. Fittingly, even ironically, Wood swipes the final two episodes from the hardworking Winslet.
By the late 1930s, Mildred finds her life and her business ventures undone by Monty’s expensive tastes and Veda’s pursuit of stardom as a coloratura soprano. A full eight years have elapsed, and you may be wondering how this plot mutates into six hours. Indeed, “Mildred Pierce” may be one of those HBO projects where subsequent episodes will remain imprisoned and unwatched in DVR and Netflix queues. Not everyone is going to respond to its purposeful languor and subliminal intent. Winslet is at once wonderful and yet enigmatically blank — very much as written in Haynes’s and Jon Raymond’s screenplay.
What propelled me through “Mildred Pierce” — in what seemed like really no time at all — was its rich attention to domestic details. Haynes and his collaborators bring the same fetish for style and decor that elevated “Far From Heaven” into a beguiling dream, from the everyday objects to the extravagant. Great thought has gone into the furniture, into Mildred’s practical house dresses — even the dollar bills and old-fashioned stop signs. That’s at least part of the secret to Haynes’s success: Feel is the most important and most intangible thing, and subtext really is the context.