2011 Apr 06

“Mildred Pierce” brings noir back to television

There just aren’t many noir films being made today. Sure, Quentin Tarantino borrows heavily from the genre and some films incorporate an occasional throwback reference, but overall, the heavy-handed dialogue of smooth talking Humphrey Bogart-like characters, the harsh lighting and the mysterious, often gruesome, plotlines have been replaced by the more contemporary trends of understated acting, 3-D gimmicks and whatever you’d like to call the phenomenon that is Michael Bay.

Mildred Pierce, a five-part HBO miniseries directed by Todd Haynes starring Kate Winslet in the title role, tries to prove, however, that noir still has a place in the 21st century.

The series is set in Depression-era Los Angeles, and the story follows Mildred Pierce as she experiences the challenges of being a single mother trying to provide for her family in a time of staggering gender imbalances. The series is based on James M. Cain’s 1941 book of the same name, which was previously adapted into a 1945 film noir that won Joan Crawford the Academy Award for Best Actress.

While Mildred is a far more human character in the miniseries than in the somewhat misogynistic noir film, the miniseries does borrow heavily from the previous adaptation in terms of acting, lighting and mise en scène. This style has mixed results, however. At first, the noir-style dialogue comes off as stilted, making it feel like an Arthur Miller play is being acted out on screen. It is eventually possible to adjust, however, from contemporary expectations for the dialogue and to become comfortable with the reliable noir cadence.

The series explores the themes of gender inequality and class struggle as Mildred is forced to work a dreaded “uniform job,” as she describes it. First working as a waitress, she eventually tries to elevate herself to the upper class by opening her own chicken and waffles restaurant. The plot is driven by the conflict between Mildred and her various love interests and by the relationship between Mildred and her ridiculously highbrow 14-year-old daughter who resents the family’s middle-class status.

Veda Pierce, played in her younger incarnation by Morgan Turner and later by Evan Rachel Wood, is the most hilariously unbelievable character in the series. Her first line is in French and her subsequent dialogue is peppered with references to Emily Brontë and Chopin. She comes across as an intellectual, erudite version of the terrorizing tot in The Bad Seed (1956), scrutinizing her mother and providing obnoxiously enlightened commentary on Mildred’s life decisions.

Veda is mirrored by the character of Monty Beragon, a deviant playboy played by the smooth-talking Guy Pearce of The King’s Speech (2010) and Memento (2001). Monty and Veda both judge Mildred for lowering herself to the working class and are off-putting almost to the point of being unbearable.

Thankfully, they are balanced out by the lovely performance by Melissa Leo of The Fighter (2010), as a wise, fast-talking friend to Mildred. Leo provides much-needed comedic relief, and she brings the noir dialogue alive more than most of the actors with whom she shares the screen.

Despite a slow start and the occasional ridiculous dialogue, the story picks up steam by part two of the series and it eventually becomes possible to identify with Winslet’s character as she struggles to find her place in the world.

Although pacing is not the series’ strong point, there are plenty of enjoyable moments to be had in this world if you’re patient enough to find them. The main pitfalls of the series occur when the overacting is pushed too far and instead of empathizing with the characters, we can only laugh at them.

Thus far, though, the series is generally charming and engaging. By reinvigorating an antiquated genre, Mildred Pierce succeeds in creating a rich, warm, old-fashioned world that soaks us into Mildred’s reality in the same spirit of noir films of the past.

Source: Tufts Daily