It's extremely difficult to nail down exactly who Mildred Pierce (Kate Winslet) is. She isn't a one-note character. She's a house wife with extraordinary cooking skills. She's a mother to two daughters: one nice and polite, the other belligerent and contradictory. She acts pious when she's throwing her husband out of the house for cheating on her, but on the other hand she uses a variety of men to meet her own needs. One thing she's perfect at is playing the victim. While, Mildred is the central figure in this melodrama, she is not an all-around staunchly moral person. Like everyone in the world Mildred has flaws, and they become glaringly obvious as time moves on.
It's easy to feel sorry for Mildred at the outset. The time is the Great Depression, but the Pierce family is a lot more well-to-do than most families out there. They live in the suburb of Glendale, California. Bert Pierce (Brían F. O'Byrne) was once the head of a large house development group, which has since gone belly up. With his new philandering ways, Mildred boots him from the home and sets out to find a job to support the family.
The social class system is in full effect here. Used to living somewhere in the upper middle class, Mildred is hesitant to take any job that would require her to wear a uniform or perform domestic service, mainly because it would shine a bad light on her daughters. However, Mildred soon becomes a mother faced with the choice of losing everything or working for tips at a local restraint as a waitress.
I could go on and on explaining the plot, but that's not really going to help you make your decision on whether or not 'Mildred Pierce' is worth your time. Let me ease your mind a little. While I haven't read the James M. Cain novel on which this HBO miniseries is based, from what I've found during my research, this five-part miniseries is an almost word for word representation of the book. If you're one of these people who is constantly angry at two-hour films that try their best to incorporate everything from a 500-page novel then this is the miniseries for you. With its length it never seems rushed. The show is content to follow these characters slowly through their lives. Building on their past experiences and feelings. It isn't so much concerned with plot as it is with characters. With the amount of time we're given to follow them we get to see them grow and evolve meticulously.
As time moves on, the confrontation between Mildred and her oldest daughter Veda (young: Morgan Turner old: Evan Rachel Wood) reaches a breaking point. Veda has her heart set on being part of the upper class, but having no real idea of what kind of money it takes to be part of that class. She's a self-entitled spoiled brat if ever there was one. I've never hated a child in a movie as much as young Veda. I guess that's a testament to some brilliant acting by young Morgan Turner. She's not the only one giving an under-the-radar performance in this film. Brían F. O'Byrne, who plays Mildred's estranged husband, has one of the more daunting roles and he nails it. With a movie filled with names like Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, and Evan Rachel Wood, you wouldn't expect the best performance to come from the actor who played Father Horvack in 'Million Dollar Baby.' The way he makes us quietly pity him is something of a miracle. Here's a guy who cheated on his wife, left her and the kids to go live with his mistress, and by the end of the miniseries it's hard not to root for him. I was surprised to say the least.
I like the slow methodical nature of 'Mildred Pierce.' I liked the idea of following this family through their trials and tribulations, not feeling like it was rushing towards some conclusion as fast as possible. It takes its time and when it finally gets to where it was going, it was all worth it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This HBO miniseries release comes in special Collector's Edition packaging, which looks more like a book than a disc case. The book opens and inside are four discs. A two-DVD set of the show, and two 50GB Blu-rays. Disc one has the first three parts while disc two has the last two parts. Inside the cover is a simple foldout with an episode list on it describing the short synopsis of each episode along with directing and writing credits. It's indicated on the case that this release is a Region A only release.
Here's where things get a little tricky. 'Mildred Pierce' was filmed on 16mm film in order to create a vintage look. The look that is created is soft and whimsical, and more or less accurately reflects the director's vision of the 1930s. The problems arise when HD makes the limitations of 16mm filming much more noticeable than a television broadcast.
Softness pervades the whole series, which again is to be expected. Mid- and long-range shots feature little to no extensive detail. There are shots, like when Bert walks into the restaurant near the end, where the character is only a few feet away from the camera but none of their facial features are visible. Instead they're simply a soft silhouette of themselves. This is the intended look of the film though, so it shouldn't really be used to judge it too harshly.
What does bring this video presentation down a few pegs, however, is the annoyingly inconsistent grain structure that ebbs across the screen at various points. Heavy, inconsistent grain is extremely noticeable on the light-skinned faces of Winslet and Wood. Whenever their faces are shown in the bright light of day, it looks as if their skin is crawling with tiny mites. The grain saps any sort of facial detail that might be there. The problem is that really heavy, detail-sapping grain is only visible during those times. It's not like the entire show is covered in it, it's simply inconsistent and troublesome. Frankly, there were parts of this that reminded me of the horrendous 'Burn Notice: Season Two' video presentation.
With that said, most of the video looks really good, especially for 16mm. Well-lit exteriors feature the most variety of colors. Primaries are bright and vivid, skin tones look naturally colored. For the most part I enjoyed director Todd Haynes' vision of the 30s and Mildred's world. I didn't notice any problems with compression artifacts or anomalies. If you can get past the awful instances of inconsistent grain, then this really is a good-looking transfer.
With the time allotted for its runtime, 'Mildred Pierce' ends up running the gamut when it comes to sonic offerings. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is engrossing, even for a talkative drama like this.
Carter Burwell's original score bleeds through the channels with its somber yet somewhat unsettling tones. Dialogue is always intelligible, even as Guy Pearce mumbles most of his lines. There's a good contrast between quieter scenes like when Mildred and Monty make love, and busier scenes like when Mildred first starts work as a waitress. Sound effects like plates clattering and silverware clanging are precisely presented in the speaker which the sound is coming from relative to its place on screen.
Even the low-end makes an appearance or two. You wouldn't expect it, but it's there. Its subtle rumbles can be felt during a thunderstorm or as a bass line accompanying the foreboding soundtrack. The track has wonderful range, as is evidenced during the operatic moments in Veda's life. The notes she hits are accurately represented here and are as beautiful as one might imagine. For a down-to-earth drama such as this I didn't expect much in the way of sonic delights, I'm glad I was pleasantly surprised.
Some may find its plodding nature a bit tedious and overbearing, but I found it a refreshing change of pace. I wasn't hanging on for dear life as they rushed towards and ending. We weren't constantly teased by cliff hangers. Instead we were presented the story of a tumultuous family with superb acting on everyone's part. 'Mildred Pierce' is a treat for those that want to sit down and take in a visual representation of a novel. With strong audio and video presentations, 'Mildred Pierce' comes recommended.