The five-part, Todd Haynes-directed miniseries of “Mildred Pierce” starts on Sunday, at 9 p.m., on HBO. Let me just tell you the most important part right now: The first episode may not particularly make you want to carry on! You might hate it immediately. But you likely should press on: what follows is definitely more exciting and pleasurable, as the show goes on. And sometimes when you try a weird new flavor, it’s disgusting at first. This flavor is decidedly off-putting or maybe just like it popped out of a time machine from when flavors were different: it’s the starchy tale of a snooty lady, and from the hilariously sombre/boring/gorgeous opening credits to the extremely odd, maybe terrific, maybe not Kate Winslet performance, you may feel quite uncomfortable. Many of you will decide that this is not your cup of period-simulacra tea, and that’s fine. But try it, because some of you will have your heads blown off.
So Mildred Pierce, the original text, is sort of like Raymond Chandler writing Edith Wharton? So it makes sense (and spoils nothing) to say that our heroine sobs and vomits at the prospect of becoming a waitress. The high drama of downward mobility! Which today registers a confusing note. Like, it’s a recession, go sling some hash, sister!
And, I mean, we’re talking about the 1930s, not the 1890s here, you know, though I guess it’s good to remember that there are only 40 years between the eras of Lily Bart and Mildred Pierce. That’s like the 1970s to the 2010s, which, I know that sounds really, really dumb to say, but it’s important to remember that history is so compact, and ideas about class and manners and position and sex (and sex positions! Hi-o!) change quite rapidly.
Reasons to press on include: Hope Davis and Guy Pearce. Hoo boy, Emmys ahoy. Hope Davis is just the greatest thing always, and Guy Pearce looks incredible naked. And the hair on everyone is magnificent. The locations and clothes are incredible, and this must have cost a fortune.
And it feels big. And that’s the issue with Her Oscar-Havingness, The Lady Kate Twinset. This is either a marvel of acting or it’s… not. I really couldn’t tell you. What do I know? Let’s have the professionals decide and just praise her commitment. She’s definitely… forceful: stomping around, looking put-upon, putting on her size-ten waitress uniform, her mouth constantly turned down. Maybe what’s hard to watch is to have this weird black hole of a character at the center of the story — and she is on-screen constantly. So Winslet is seriously overclocking here. I bet when she went home for the day, steam was coming out of her ears. What’s to say! I’ve never really “gotten” her, but I do admire her, and, you know, Heavenly Creatures, we owe her a debt for life.
Have I made this all sound terribly unappealing? It isn’t. It’s complicated! It’s fascinating! It’s something you haven’t seen before. And it’s definitely melodrama. But it’s honest melodrama, if that’s a possible thing.