Mar 31, 2011

REVIEW: Mildred Pierce (dir. Haynes)

So I'm going to try not to get too embroiled in the whole "My much loved Joan Crawford film classic beats your HBO miniseries" contretemps — an asymmetric non-starter. The Crawford version is as grooved with familiarity as the face of a family member; by comparison, the new Mildred Pierce cannot but seem a rank imposter — somebody impersonating your mother. But it's got some interesting things to say about class that are largely absent from the Curtiz version, largely because of changes wrought to the character of Veda — a sleazy lounge act in the Curtiz, a "cheap little tart" in Cain's words, rather than the coloratura soprano he envisaged as the embodiment of Mildred's dreams and then some, the moral of the tale being: be careful what you wish for. Cain:
"The book simply says perhaps a dream come true may be the worst possible thing that can happen. But before the story has any point at all, there must be a dream and it must come true. Your Mildred dreams of ham sandwiches. My Mildred, although it is constantly stated that ham sandwiches are the limit of her talent, dreams tall dreams for Veda and then has the egregious misfortune to have them come true."
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Haynes version certainly doesn't. It is much slower — 45 minutes even to get to the cafe, and another 30 to meet Monty Beragon — although I like the soft, slow grind this lends the action. You can almost catch the falling dust motes in Haynes's wide, Hopperesque compositions. Plus it accords a more seemly grieving period for the death of Mildred's youngest daughter — a trauma which I seem to remember Joan Crawford recovering from in the time it took her to down a single shot of whiskey. Kate Winslet's performance at its strongest in these early scenes, I think, registering all the small assaults on Mildred's pride, the quick gulps she performs before soldiering on. Guy Pierce's Monty is, I think, outstanding: a man so gigoloishly devoted to his own pleasure that he brings a blush to the cheek of every scene he's in ("what this evening needs is the crime of rape"). Hayne's wholesale airlift of much of Cain's dialogue works very well at nailing down that cut-the-mush depression-era tone — especially startling when set beside today's doughy Oprahisms. I wish people would get through the current recession with a few more cries like Veda's "cut the penny-dreadful dramatics." Little Veda will, of course, grow up into Evan Rachel Wood, an enamalled spitfire, visiting scalding arias of rage upon Mildred's poor head in what amounts to a terrific sequel to Wood's breakout performance in 2003's Thirteen. She is now just 23, God help us, and in many ways she out-Winslet's Winslet, loosing the same air-and-fire polyphony that propelled Winslet to fame in Heavenly Creatures, all those years ago; their head-to-heads are like seeing Winslet go twelve rounds against a younger version of herself — and losing. For the same thing has happened to Winslet that happens to many actresses who win an Oscar: the fight goes out of them, followed by a lofty, far-reaching search for roles befitting their new pedigree as Oscar winners — or, as here, they play roles which won other actresses their Oscars. I don't think Winslet has given up completely, but she does look genuinely perplexed in her scenes with Wood, trying too hard to look like the innocent wronged when we needed to see more of that crazy-making maternal love bubbling through her veins, and which so broiled Holly Hunter's skull in Thirteen. Winslet looks merely at a loss for words. The result is that it's Wood's show, by and large. The climax is seared into my retinas as irremovably as a denouement from Sophocles: Veda walking past her mother, naked and defiant, followed by a mad, furious flight downstairs, her eau de nil gown billowing out behind her, the snake revealed. Haynes crestores the jewel of Cain's novel to its original lustre: Vida is a creature smelted from Mildred's own dreams, her own snobberies, an engine of destruction forged from nothing more than a mother's desire that her daughter live a life better than her own. B-

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