Posted by martinteller on May 11, 2012
Looking over my old reviews can be a painful experience. Often they say barely anything of value, and sometimes they’re loaded with just plain boneheaded remarks. My scant notes on the 1945 Michael Curtiz film are more puzzling to me than painful. I gave the film a very good rating of 8/10, yet the review feels more negative than positive. Among my complaints was it “doesn’t offer much that lingers with you.” While it’s true I don’t recall the entire thing, parts of it have lingered with me for six years.
At any rate, this review is about Todd Haynes’ acclaimed miniseries, not the Curtiz film. It lacks the rather huge plot point that Curtiz added (an addition that brings it into the realm of film noir) but sticks much closer to the James M. Cain novel (which, as usual, I have to admit I haven’t read). The series length allows for it to cover an array of thematic elements: the Depression and post-Depression economic situation, independence, motherhood, ambition (financial and social), feminism and female sexuality, and most of all, the way in which people tend not to change, no matter how much we want them to. Once a doormat, always a doormat. Once a cad, always a cad. Once a schemer, always a schemer. We define ourselves early and it takes heaps of experience to alter that course, if we do at all.
Kate Winslet is, as always, reliable and compelling. Her performance is quite reminiscent of Joan Crawford’s (although she does things onscreen that Crawford of course couldn’t). I don’t see this as either imitation or homage, but simply a result of how well-defined the title character is. While I wouldn’t call either one better — it’s roughly a draw, in my opinion — Winslet is given more time to flesh out the role and explore its nuances a little deeper. The supporting cast is really strong, as well. Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham are endearing as Mildred’s friends, as is Brian O’Byrne in a wonderful turn as her ex-husband. I’m not a big Guy Pearce admirer, but I must say the part of the seductive freeloader suits him quite nicely. I was also really pleased to see James LeGros… he had small roles in two of my favorites, Drugstore Cowboy and Safe (also by Haynes) but I’d lost track of him in recent years. He’s quite good here, I’ll have to go back and see what else he’s done lately. The role of Veda is a little more problematic. Ann Blyth really jacked up that part in the 1945 film and made it memorably vicious. In the miniseries, it’s divided between two actresses. Young Veda is played by Morgan Turner. It’s hard to say whether she’s a good actress or not, because little Veda is all about putting on airs. She’s supposed to be a phony. In that sense, little Miss Turner sells it nicely. Older Veda comes courtesy of Evan Rachel Wood. The only other film I’ve seen with Wood is Whatever Works, where I noted her performance as “pretty bad.” Not much better here. Nothing going on there at all, I just didn’t find anything interesting in her portrayal of the character.
Haynes’s apparent affection for retro filmmaking (Far From Heaven, parts of Poison, Velvet Goldmine) pays off with a beautiful and convincing period recreation. I couldn’t find fault with the production design, although obviously I never lived through the 30’s. The cinematography is grand, with subtle zooms and warm tones, and the Carter Burwell score is lovely as well. I don’t think one needs to say whether the miniseries is better or worse than the Curtiz film… they exist side by side, different takes on the same story, compellingly watchable for different reasons. I’m more likely to rewatch the 1945 version (especially if it comes out on Blu-Ray) but that might be due to its more manageable length than anything else. But that isn’t to say there’s a lot of superfluous material in the miniseries, I quite enjoyed all of it. Rating: Very Good