Todd Haynes' adaptation is too classy for its own good.
For his first feature-length trick, Todd Haynes spiked theaters with Poison (1991), a trip of a triptych that queer-theorized the work of Jean Genet into a piece of camp-transcending art-pop. The concoction was potent enough to launch him into the first rank of American filmmakers. In the two decades since, Haynes has alternated between gorgeously stylized treatments of desperate housewifery and intrepid explorations of rock-and-roll identity. Into the former category fell the allegory Safe (1995), in which Julianne Moore developed a hideous allergy to her antiseptic life in the San Fernando Valley, and the Douglas Sirk homage Far From Heaven (2002), in which Julianne Moore chafed at her motion-picture-perfect imitation of life in Connecticut. Into the latter fell Velvet Goldmine (1998), a glam-rock opera melding the bio of Ziggy Stardust with the criticism of Walter Pater, and I'm Not There (2007), a visionary anti-biopic merging the tall tales of Bob Dylan with the philosophy of critic Greil Marcus. None of these movies is perfect, but all of them are tremendous—rich dialogues between gut pop feeling and ethereal ideas from the seminar room, nervy riffs that give Postmodernism a good name. Mildred Pierce (HBO, debuts Sunday at 9 p.m. ET) is one of Haynes' meticulous domestic numbers, a version of the James M. Cain novel that gives a wide berth to the classic adaptation directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Joan Crawford while staying true to the original character, a creature of the American kitchen who bakes apple pies and tastes just desserts. In golden California, during the gray Depression, Mildred splits from her cheating husband, sinks beneath her social class to work as a waitress, strives to give her uppity older daughter reasons to keep putting on airs, launches a restaurant business, experiences joy and torment with a fancy-lad boyfriend, and cries, and cries, and cries her heart out. The earlier film swerved hard to noir, like the film versions of Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (about murder and lust, about Lana Turner's little white top covering a big black heart) and Double Indemnity (about insurance and distrust, about Barbara Stanwyck's nicely turned ankles and her devious twists). For Curtiz and Crawford and Warner Bros., Mildred Pierce was a story of predators and prey and death in flashback. Haynes clears away the deep shadows, drains much of the pulp, and makes room for what used to be called "woman's picture." The director certainly knows his way around noir; both Velvet Goldmine, with its telescoping flashbacks and Citizen Kane-ish journalistic quest, and I'm Not There, all expressionism and interrogation, are blissful perversions of the form. Preferring to redomesticize Mildred Pierce, Haynes arrives at a film—a five-part, five-hour miniseries—that is merely pretty good. He seems rather domesticated himself—tamed, housetrained, his gleaming claws clipped. One way of reading things is to suppose that contact with the medium of television has inclined Haynes to imagine Mildred Pierce as the classiest soap opera ever aired, lustrous and languorous in tracing the lengths that mothers will go to for their daughters and the knots they tie themselves up in while doing so. I am saying—with the rather irrational, possibly unfair disgruntlement of a possessive fan—that the movie is not as weird as I would like. Still, the critic behind the fan finds much to admire in this tragedy of manners. Mildred Pierce opens in a gracious home in Los Angeles County in 1931, in the kitchen, which is the only place that the heroine has ever belonged. The camera, staying close to her hands and their work, whips up a complex portrait. There's maternal muscle in the kneading, an erotic gloss on gooey pie filling, everyday violence in the cooking shears, fragility in the icing on the cake. There's a tension in the gestures: You are what eats you. The camera pulls back, and it turns out that Kate Winslet is the slow-boiling lady of the house. Her husband—whom we'd half-seen working out in the yard, bleary behind the glass of the window—is no gentleman. The day's argument begins with his reluctance to be pinned down about when and if he'll be home for dinner. It gains traction with Mildred's undercutting commentary about his wasteful way of watering the lawn. (So early? With water so precious in young California? Forget it, Jake, it's Glendale.) He storms off to his floozy's place, for good, for better or worse. What will Mildred tell her two daughters? One is a haughty little snob, a translucent ghost child, and the heroine's ongoing motivation; the other is a cut-up, an imp, and a mere plot device. Mildred tells them, "What's important to know is that there's nothing to worry about," and Winslet earns an Emmy nomination simply for this one moment of creating a distance—a gap as vast as a void—between this line and that unbrave face. What follows is a drama about class and ass and apron strings, costarring Guy Pearce as a playboy who can't pay his polo duties, Evan Rachel Wood as a daughter who thinks she's better than her mother, and Melissa Leo as a neighbor who functions as a practical devil on Mildred's aproned shoulder. Mildred works hard, plays by the rules, achieves the American nightmare. Haynes proceeds with an artful kind of lavish restraint, resolutely employing the motif of shooting Mildred and the supporting character through window panes, doggedly working a baking theme. The heroine wants the best for her daughters: "Not just bread—all the cake in the world." The director serves us a cake under glass.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce in Mildred Pierce © 2011 HBO. All rights reserved.