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Television Review

Winslet carries a thoroughly modern ‘Mildred’

Kate Winslet plays the title character in HBO’s adaptation of “Mildred Pierce.’’ Kate Winslet plays the title character in HBO’s adaptation of “Mildred Pierce.’’ (Andrew Schwartz)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / March 25, 2011

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The original 1945 film adaptation of James M. Cain’s “Mildred Pierce’’ was shot in black and white. The compositions, so stark, were definitive noir. And it was black and white thematically, too — the innocent and the guilty, the giver and the taker, the altruistic mother and the shrewish daughter.

But HBO’s elegant new five-part adaptation of “Mildred Pierce’’ is miles and decades away from that kind of austere, hard-boiled atmosphere. The new “Mildred Pierce’’ has been filmed in warm, creamy Californian hues and with subtle layering — characters glimpsed through windows, transparent reflections of clouds passing over them. And, this being cable TV, the homeland of ambiguous heroism, the script’s psychological bearings are as nuanced as the photography. The boundaries of the new Mildred (Kate Winslet) overlap with those of her daughter Veda (Morgan Turner, then Evan Rachel Wood), as together they form an ugly parent-child storm system.

In other words, HBO’s miniseries is an entirely different beast from the 1945 film classic. Director and co-writer Todd Haynes has turned away from the sacred relic that won Joan Crawford an Oscar and he has successfully adapted Cain’s 1941 novel according to today’s aesthetics, socioeconomic insights, and, it must be said, eyebrow-plucking mores. I rarely thought of the 1945 movie during Haynes’s nearly six-hour version — and when I did, it was in regard to Wood’s grown-up Veda, who briefly samples the white face, razor-sharp shoulder pads, and overwrought expressions that have made Crawford a camp icon.

The miniseries, which starts with two episodes on Sunday at 9 p.m., has the time to take each plot element and character from Cain’s novel and let it breathe, maximize its significance. The Depression, not mentioned in the 1945 film, is front and center here, as Mildred’s marriage to the unemployed Bert (the excellent Brían F. O’Byrne) breaks apart in the opening scenes. Bert has found another woman, perhaps to heal an ego wounded by financial failure, and Mildred is suddenly alone supporting two daughters. The prevalence of economic strain in the miniseries, and the sequences of Mildred’s humiliating job search, resonate to our current recession. Gone is the murder suspense framing device that was built for the 1945 movie; Haynes, who directed “Far From Heaven,’’ “Safe,’’ and “I’m Not There,’’ keeps the focus on social and cultural issues.

Mildred turns to food as her source of female empowerment, as a waitress, a baker, and a restaurateur. Indeed, early on, Mildred’s friend and independence coach Lucy (Melissa Leo) warns her to cook for her date, and not to let him take her out for dinner, if she doesn’t want to be bought. Feminist issues are gently but firmly wound into this story, as Mildred fights to survive, buttressed by her supportive women friends — including Ida (Mare Winningham), her kitchen mentor — against a series of lost, backstabbing men. When she takes on financially teetering aristocrat Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce) as a lover, she comes up against the epitome of male duplicity. The only woman that truly turns on Mildred is, of course, Veda, the very person Mildred is fighting for.

Veda is a nightmare, a pretentious chit who actually has enough talent — at first on piano, then singing opera — to keep her delusions of grandeur afloat. Turner is fine as the younger Veda, a brat with elite affectations. Wood takes over the role a little later than she should, though; Turner looks ridiculous with a cigarette, dropping lines such as “Christ, I hate this dump’’ in reference to their modest Glendale home. Once Wood steps onto the screen, bone thin and snakelike, she runs with the material, oozing condescension toward her mother and manipulating her rich friends. She’s easy to hate.

But Haynes doesn’t quite let us forget that Mildred has helped to create this monster. The miniseries dives into the muck of the dynamic between mother and daughter, as Mildred lets the impudent girl who’s not much worse than the oldest daughter on “Modern Family’’ evolve into a bird of prey. Mildred is blinded by her own big dreams, which she has transferred onto Veda. Like Veda, Mildred disdains the working class, until she is forced to join it.

It’s hard to see Mildred’s faults; Winslet’s sympathetic, seamless performance guarantees that. You only want to forgive her counterproductive actions, as she builds an empire but sabotages it with bad choices such as Monty. But when Veda cruelly accuses her mother of sleeping her way to the top, you can see her point of view. To some extent, Veda is a more deliberate and cartoonish version of Mildred. I don’t generally think Wood and Winslet look alike, but there are moments in “Mildred Pierce’’ when you can see Wood’s physiognomy creepily reflected on Winslet’s face.

“Mildred Pierce’’ is a soap opera, and an erotic one, this being HBO. Monty’s allure for Mildred is largely sexual, a facet to their relationship that reveals Mildred acting for herself instead of for Veda. In one of the miniseries’ most troubling scenes, Veda walks unclothed in front of her mother — a scene that finds Wood effectively using her nakedness as a knife. The frank sexuality in this production adds a critical layer to our understanding of these characters’ motivations.

But the miniseries is a soap opera, and it does drag a little early on, before the stakes have grown high. Also, Haynes takes a few melodramatic moments too many feet over the top — the injuring of Veda’s throat, for example, which rises into an almost laughable delirium. But those excesses are forgivable in this otherwise masterful, faithful, and deluxe adaptation.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

MILDRED PIERCE

Starring: Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood, Brķan F. O’Byrne, James LeGros, Melissa Leo, Guy Pearce, Morgan Turner, Hope Davis, Mare Winningham

On: HBO

Time: Sunday, 9-11 p.m.