19 April 2011 | BenjAii
I should start by saying, although I've never read the James M Cain novel, as a fan of classic golden era Hollywood films I love the original version of Mildred Pierce.
That didn't stop me enjoying Todd Hayne's new miniseries. It was fun to see the story retold and this is first class film-making for TV that easily outclasses a great deal of what gets pumped out for contemporary cinema. It's hard to say anything bad about the great cast and a beautifully photographed and realized recreation of 1930's Los Angeles.
Many reviewers seem to be posing the question Why? to a remake of this particular story. On one level there are obvious similarities to the Great Depression and the present times we live in coloured by an ongoing financial crisis. So is this a parable for our times ? Is there some deeper symbolic meaning to this storytelling that illuminates aspects of society ?
From what I've read of the novel, it seems this may have been James Cain's intention. Although Mildred Pierce is credited as his most ambitious work no one has ever mentioned it in the same breath as "great American novel". Is Mildred's vain pursuit of Veda's love and approval an allegory for ordinary folks pursuit of a chimerical and ultimately false credit card maxed "good life", that is ultimately a betrayal of who they really are and their true values Maybe?, maybe not.
It seems clear we are to think of Mildred as an tragic heroine on an operatic scale. Someone who's one blindness and weakness, her love for an ungrateful daughter, is her kismet and will be her ultimate downfall. But the story never really succeeds on this level and it's telling that it seems so well suited to it's styling as a Joan Crawford melodrama.
What's stopping it ? I think the problem is for this story to touch the greatness it's striving for this that its two central characters are never quite believable. Veda comes off as an almost cartoon or pantomime baddie. On the one hand we can understand (if not sympathize) with her disgust of lower middle class Glendale and aspirations for the finer things in life. But this never explains the level of hatred and sadism she displays towards her mother. Perhaps there is no explanation for this, the Italian teacher who so aptly sums her up is right, perhaps she's just an exceptional one off, a beautiful poisonous snake to be admired from afar, but never touched.
Even if we except this and take Veda's exceptional malevolence as believable the problem is that Mildred's character doesn't quite gel either. In almost every other area of her life we see Mildred as not only being clever, resourceful and capable but exceptionally so. The story of her entrepreneurial rise to success shows her dealing with people and situations with insight and astuteness. Yet this so completely deserts her when dealing with her daughter ?
Of course that's supposed to be the whole point of the story and in the tradition of capable heros with ruinous great flaws, something she can do nothing about. It's just that somehow here it never seems to quite work on the subconscious level these stories need to succeed at if they are to satisfyingly tap into the great archetypal themes they are aiming to communicate with.
So maybe Joan Crawford's version wins in the end, never the less HBO's mini-series is well worth a spin as a very superior soap opera told with cinematic flair.