I've read with interest the wide-ranging reviews of HBO's "Mildred Pierce," the five-part miniseries that debuts its first two segments tonight. Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times called it a "revelation," while Alan Sepinwall of HitFix.com called it a "slog." Variety's Brian Lowry praised its audaciousness.
My take is very much in the middle. As ravishing as its look and as intriguing as its themes are, "Mildred" gets off to such a slow and stilted start in its first hour that the entire project feels like a basketball team trying to come back from an early 20-point deficit (excuse the March Madness influence). And though it goes on some runs, I can't say that in the end that Team Mildred is triumphant.
Kate Winslet is someone I almost always adore onscreen, and one can sense, regardless of the miniseries' reviews, that she's already shaping up to this year's Claire Danes – as it was with the "Temple Grandin" star from the Emmys through the SAGs, it's going to be one long awards tour in 2011-12 for Winslet. But her performance to me was remarkably mannered, and I found myself wrestling with it for most of the miniseries. She and director Todd Haynes made the calculated choice to keep Mildred in a soft monotone most of the time, and it comes across as self-conscious and ironically showy. In the final two parts, Winslet's performance peaks, but her best moments are probably when she's reacting instead of talking. It's problematic work.
Then there's the problem with "Mildred" that everyone, including McNamara, has latched onto: the character of Mildred's daughter Veda (60% Morgan Turner, 40% Evan Rachel Wood) is so unredeemingly loathsome that you're not sure if you're watching a family drama or a horror movie. Little cause for this is given: Maybe the split between her parents in the opening moments lit the fuse, maybe she was just spoiled beyond redemption. But mostly, the film's argument seems only to be that she's a bad seed, and what are you supposed to do with that? It'd be one thing if this were a 90-minute movie, but in a project more than six hours long that takes pains to lay out everything that makes Mildred what she is, it's hard to accept that, to call back Jessica Rabbit, Veda "was just drawn that way."
The remaining supporting cast of "Mildred" – led by Melissa Leo, James LeGros, Brian F. O'Byrne, Guy Pearce and Mare Winningham – is strong, and I was never that close to giving up on the entire thing. Part of that was just enjoying strengths of "Mildred" despite its flaws, and my curiosity over which, in the end, would win out. The final score? I don't really regret the time I spent watching "Mildred," but I wouldn't necessarily say it was worth it.