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Winslet serves up pity for ‘Mildred’


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Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Sometimes you just want to watch a movie where someone says, “I guess I’ve sort of fallen for you, Monty” to a man with a pencil-thin mustache.

Swooning on the inside, laughing on the outside: Filmmaker Todd Haynes wants you to have it both ways. His five-hour miniseries “Mildred Pierce” revives the revered 1945 Joan Crawford melodrama, which won Crawford an Academy Award. (Only Crawford herself was more melodramatic, famously calling in sick to the Oscars and accepting the statue in bed, wearing a floaty peignoir set.)

But this “Mildred Pierce” is from Haynes, the same guy who made a short film about Karen Carpenter using Barbie dolls, and who cast Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Cate Blanchett — all three of them, and more — as Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.” Haynes’ Julianne Moore weeper “Far From Heaven” (2002) established him as the second coming of Douglas Sirk (see: 1959’s “Imitation of Life”).

What I’m trying to say is, you can watch “Mildred Pierce” straight up or wearing your irony glasses.

The original movie started with a bang, shaping up as a murder mystery. This miniseries takes its time, working expansively from the novel Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity). The look is vintage, the dialogue is vintage, the attitudes are vintage. It’s a technique that alternately takes you back and jolts you out of the action. (Should children really be drinking Scotch?)

Kate Winslet is Mildred, and if she didn’t have a reputation as an awards glutton before, this should settle it. I’m surprised she didn’t insist on changing the name to Emmy.

Mildred is a housewife in 1931 Glendale, Calif., who pushes her cheating husband out the door and is left with two young girls. Her first crisis is (gasp!) getting a job, and her second crisis (GASP!) is getting a job she thinks is beneath her, as a waitress.

Mildred is ambitious and sexually active. Don’t worry, she gets plenty punished for both. “I’ve got my own ideas and I just can’t change them for anybody else,” Mildred tries to explain.

We watch Mildred over nine years as she rises in the world, from making pies in her kitchen to running a chain of restaurants. Men come and go, but her true love is her older daughter Veda, a snob who is raised believing she is meant for the finer things in life.

Curiously, Mildred’s one of the few characters not glammed up with mask-like makeup. Across the board, though, everyone talks with nasal, staccato “His Girl Friday” dialogue. Winslet makes Mildred as real as she can, but inevitably you reflect, “How did people talk like this and keep a straight face?”

The supporting cast is phenomenal. All the actors look like people living in past centuries — particularly Evan Rachel Wood as Mildred’s snotty daughter.

Other characters to delight in:

† Guy Pearce, doing a depressed Clark Gable, as Mildred’s slimy-slick love interest.

† Recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo in the Eve Arden role as Mildred’s best pal, who’s rich with wisdom and has colorful ways to express it. (Typical line: “Old mother nature, she’s no bum.”)

† A heavily made-up Mare Winningham as the kind of waitress who brings to mind the word “broad.”

† A nearly unrecognizable James LeGros as street-smart businessman with a potbelly.

Honorable mention goes to the fabulous wardrobe — at least in the later episodes, when more of the characters can afford to drape themselves with limp foxes.

Film buffs will have a field day analyzing the themes: social climbing, postwar materialism, feminism, lousy parenting, etc. But this is not event TV like “Boardwalk Empire.” Winslet is sympathetic and winning in a tough role, but I suspect more people will watch “Mildred Pierce” for academic purposes rather than pure entertainment.

This series can be a slog. There are leisurely scenes of Mildred sitting at a diner, Mildred riding in a cab, Mildred changing her clothes. Atmospheric, yes. Compelling, not so much. I’m no auteur, but all those scenes of Wood lip-syncing opera? Tough to watch. That’s where I’d start to cut.

Five hours is a long haul — especially when you want to slap the characters the whole time.

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