A mother's love, depending on the quality, can do many things to a child; in simplest terms in can uplift or destroy. And then, there's how that child returns that mother love.
One answer can be found in "Mildred Pierce," (Sunday, 9 p.m. HBO), a gorgeously made, mostly successful five-part mini-series starring Kate Winslet and Raleigh's own Evan Rachel Wood, that explores a venomous mother-daughter relationship.
Actually, that's not all "Mildred Pierce" is about; it's also about class, particularly middle-class aspirations, and the difficult climb to the next tier.
If you love, love, love the movie starring Joan Crawford, try to erase it from your mind. Director Todd Haynes ("Far From Heaven") sticks closer to the 1941 James M. Cain novel, which basically means this is a more restrained, more nuanced version. In the beginning, in fact, it might seem kind of slow.
The story begins with Mildred (Winslet), living in Glendale, California, becoming a 'grass widow,' after her husband Bert (Brian F. O’Byrne), a failed real estate developer, leaves. She's left with two young daughters Ray and Veda, an ability to make pies, and an ill-suited sense of pride that makes her physically sick at the idea of doing work she deems beneath her. Even haughtier is Veda (played at first by Morgan Turner) who actually speaks of 'peasants.'
Stronger than Mildred's pride, however, is her love for her daughters. She ends up secretly taking a job as a waitress to keep her girls in piano lessons and other extras. It turns out the job opens a door to business opportunities, and financial uplift, as well as new love with upscale slacker Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce).
As the lead, and in every scene, Winslet is pretty amazing. As her life changes, Mildred's life opens up and Winslet unveils those awakenings, from heartbreak to ecstasy, with profound grace. Girlfriend can act. As the adult Veda, Wood does snooty maliciousness proud. She appropriately over does it at times in a manner that makes the part delicious, even while her character is being cruel. And yet, she also has moments of unexpected kindness.
As I noted, this is a beautiful film also. I absolutely felt pulled into the era, by the language (fabulous co-stars Melissa Leo and Mare Winningham handle this brilliantly), the costumes (On 'The View,' Winslet said she had 66 costumes changes), the feel from the cinematography. Nothing about this film feels inauthentic.
My quibbles: In the parlance of the era (1930s-40s) of the film, Mildred comes across as a sap. I admit I've heard tell of women who overmother their children, allowing them too many chances, indulging them into a sense of entitlement, overlooking their flaws. But the Mildred we see is also strong, a quick learner, and clear headed. The film would have been better if Mildred pushed back a bit more in the battles with Veda.
The nuances of the class struggle get smothered some too. Mildred doesn't come across as class obsessed enough to have raised a Veda. And her self-sacrifice doesn't make a dent in Veda's armor.
By the way: For you more sensitive types, this is HBO: both Winslet and (bony) Wood have scenes of full frontal nudity, and the love scenes, while tastefully handled, leave little to the imagination.
Still, I watched all five hours of "Mildred Pierce" eagerly, gently lured by the feel, the emotional story of a selfless yet selfish mother trying to make her way in a man's world, and the stellar performances. It's a woman's story nicely shaped by a man.