BY: FRAZIER MOORE
NEW YORK – A remarkable thing (and there are many) about the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce“: The way it breathes.
This five-part, five and a half hour adaptation of the 1941 James M. Cain novel is an unhurried period piece that sets the viewer down in Depression-era Glendale, Calif., and into the complicated world of its heroine.
But even as it inhabits a long-ago time and place, it also seems to dovetail with the current day. Leafy Glendale of 1931 isn’t exactly the Dust Bowl, but it, like the rest of the country, has been slammed by economic crisis that, for the viewer, may strike a familiar chord.
Meanwhile, Mildred’s plight is magnified: She is suddenly a divorcee, forced to find work to support herself and her two young daughters.
Ambitious and resourceful, Mildred will do that and then some: She builds a restaurant empire.
But during a saga stretching nearly a decade, Mildred, despite her business successes, will face class stigma (her sleepy burg just doesn’t cut it with the likes of nearby Pasadena) and a stormy relationship with her precocious, social-climbing daughter, Veda.
She will also confront her sexual self, exploring “aspects of herself she never knew existed,” in the words of Todd Haynes, who directed the miniseries and co-wrote its script. (The first two parts air Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT, with subsequent episodes unfolding the next two Sundays.)
This “Mildred Pierce” has only a nodding acquaintance with the much-remembered 1945 film, a murder whodunit that brought its star, Joan Crawford, a best actress Oscar.
Haynes (whose previous films include “Far From Heaven” and “I’m Not There”) calls his version “an intensely faithful adaptation of the novel.” Indeed, it feels like a gracefully direct translation into pictures and sound, complete with breathing room for the audience “to think and to draw connections yourself,” as he puts it.
Kate Winslet is a marvel as Mildred, who is on-screen nearly every scene as she goes through many changes and the pressures that propel them.
Also starring are Melissa Leo, James Le Gros, Brian F. O’Byrne and Evan Rachel Wood (as Veda in adulthood).
But Guy Pearce shines in a pivotal supporting role as dashing man-about-town Monty Beragon, with whom Mildred shares impulsive romance, then much more.
Among moviegoers who know him, Pearce is perhaps best-known for his performance as the by-the-book cop in the 1997 crime noir “L.A. Confidential” and for “Memento” (2000), the reverse-told narrative of a man with no memory on the trail of his wife’s killer.
Pearce has also played a drag queen (“The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”), Andy Warhol (“Factory Girl”), Harry Houdini (“Death Defying Acts”) and a gritty 1880s outlaw (“The Proposition,” an Australian-set Western), among his many other roles. And he made brief but key appearances in recent back-to-back Academy Award best pictures, “The Hurt Locker” and “The King’s Speech.”
In “Mildred Pierce,” he sports a devil-may-care attitude, a pencil mustache and a roadster as Monty, who sweeps Mildred off her feet at the end of Episode 2. He re-enters her life years later, in Episode 5.
Fans of the original film will remember Monty (played by Zachary Scott) as the victim of a shooting that frames the film’s murder mystery: Did Mildred do it?
This time, Monty is never at risk as he offers a vivid counterpoint to Mildred at both ends of her journey.
“Monty has been brought up with almost a religious belief that money is never a problem and it’s always there, whereas Mildred is a working-class lady and a survivor,” Pearce says. “For her, it’s all about responsibility. For Monty, it’s not about responsibility at all.”
Pearce nails Monty’s entitled but engaging air of privilege — for example, when Mildred asks his profession.
Monty, who owns part of a lucrative fruit export business, describes it nonchalantly as, “Oranges, grapefruit — something like that.”
“Guy conveys an entire class at a specific time and place in the way that he delivers that line,” says Haynes, who acknowledges surprise that, by now, the 43-year-old Pearce isn’t a household name. “Everything he does is so spot-on! It’s amazing.”
Haynes speculates that if marquee status has so far eluded Pearce, maybe Pearce has also purposely evaded it.
“I think he wants to do more interesting work than what those leading-man roles usually are about, and what the burden of maintaining that status is about,” Haynes says.
In a recent interview, Pearce’s brawny frame is clad in jeans and a snug-fitting T-shirt, with black-rim glasses accenting his chiseled face. That’s Pearce’s real-life appearance. But he has a gift for transforming himself with each role, often unrecognizably. Pearce is a character actor on par with, say, the wonderfully homely Paul Giamatti — but with matinee-idol looks that never get in his way.
Pearce, who was born in England but raised in Australia, where he still lives, says he’s at a loss to identify a common link between his diverse performances, “other than how I look at them from the inside, which is being fascinated with the many aspects of what makes up this world and the people who are in it.
“I don’t really understand those actors who play the same role all the time,” he says. “I think, `That’s great if you want to do that and you’re good doing that.’ But I just don’t get it.”
He suggests that his need to stay on the move creatively resulted from a four-year hitch on an Australian soap, “Neighbors.” His first acting job right out of college, it left him “drowning in the monotony of it all.”
“There’s something fascinating to me about working out a character,” he says, “and understanding it and becoming it and riding the wave of that character. And then going, `Great, fantastic,’ and putting it away.
“What’s next: That’s what keeps me going.”
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