If you didn’t know a thing about Todd Haynes, his degree in Arts and Semiotics, and his affinity for (and acute socio-political perspective on) classic Hollywood, you might look at the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce and figure it’s some kind of distended but workmanlike remake of the 1945 Joan Crawford-starring classic, mounted with the cable station’s same quasi-Dickensian appreciation for deliberately paced epic narratives that gave us John Adams and Band of Brothers, distinguished by their enhanced sense of detail and “cinematic” qualities. If you did know Haynes, you might expect all of the above to be machine-tooled and metronome-timed to the matrix of some enormous, deep-dish theoretical treatise, a veritable university education in 300-some-odd minutes.
The actual result is somewhere in between. Haynes, who can color-code melodrama like nobody’s business, scales way back on the academic-conceptual aspects that have informed his movies, from Superstar all the way through I’m Not There. Those of his detractors who’ve felt his past work had a brusque, pedagogical edge can take comfort in the way he seems fully invested in the unfolding story of the suburban-divorcée-turned-greasy-spoon-mogul, shaped as it is by five acts of operatic peaks and valleys, with an un-self-conscious immersion in the title character’s subjective mental and emotional spaces. On the other hand, Todd Haynes is Todd Haynes, and you’d be mistaken to think his direction, however user-friendly it might seem here, indicates a disenfranchised auteur who’s hung up his spurs and sold his gun to cable-television purgatory.
Relying heavily on telephoto lenses, a choice inspired by the surfeit of Depression-themed films from the 1970s (according to his audio commentary), Haynes builds each and every scene around the title character, so that no small part of the empathy we feel for Mildred comes from the amount of time we spend with her, and the earnestness, pragmatism, and wounded pride with which she approaches each roadblock. The long lens’s flattening of the image allows it to acquire a paradoxical, dual effect both of great (nearly claustrophobic) intimacy and a disassociated, fish-tank “looking-at”-ness, the latter enhanced by Haynes’s frequent use of frames and glass panes to subdivide images, or to suggest the ceaseless presence of a voyeuristic spectator.
Instead of simply remaking the 1945 film, Haynes returns to James M. Cain’s hardboiled 1941 novel, more often than not hiding his artistry in plain sight, making artistic and technical choices that allow him to pay off his faithfulness balance to Cain’s text while he goes to work building a uniquely televisual (if that term, post-Breaking Bad, can acquire a more-than-honorable connotation) structure of cathedral-grade complexity, one whose visceral excitement is sourced both to the melodramatic and the visual.
You want to go ahead and readjust your expectations if you think the combination of HBO and Blu-ray means you’ll be able to count every follicle in Evan Rachel Wood’s insolent merkin. Todd Haynes—here reunited with his champion D.P., Edward Lachman—shot Mildred Pierce on Super 16, a format that is light years ahead of regular 16mm, but has certain properties that would’ve been lost going for full 35mm. As employed by Haynes and Lachman, Super 16 has considerable contrast latitude and dense, devouring colors (watch the series in one sitting, and your nightmares will be in cheap, slutty crimson and dour olive), but there’s a certain flattening of the brightness range that emphasizes the suffocating, voyeuristic qualities Haynes sees in much of James M. Cain’s narrative. Given the heavy globules attendant in this choice of format, even as Haynes emerges victorious as an artist, it’s not the avenue to Boardwalk Empire-esque, razor-sharp images you might use to field-test your HD set for the benefit of friends and neighbors. Having said that, HBO’s picture transfer to Blu-ray squeaks by with a barely passing grade. There’s heavy digital noise, presumably due to the authoring software reacting to the Super 16 by not knowing whether to shit or go blind. It’s not felony neglect, and if you’re watching it from across the living room, it’s pretty acceptable. The DVD counterpart, on the other hand, is a complete debacle, with obscene amounts of interlacing and resolution so poor it destroys each carefully composed frame.
The sound mix fares much better. A deliberately talky miniseries that also relies on a moody, complex score by Carter Burwell (who won an Emmy for his work), as well as a handful of crucial musical performances (the most moving of which is Veda’s first radio broadcast), the lossless 5.1 English DTS track is mostly excellent, with dialogue staying one head above the most dissonant environmental noise—even a historic New Year’s Eve downpour. There’s also a pair of serviceable alternate language tracks, French and Spanish, which replace only the dialogue, keeping the rest of the audio mix intact.
Someone needs to say something about the packaging, at least as it concerns the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack: The inward-folding book design cutely reminds one of a classic novel in its hardback printing, but the penalty for not putting each pair of discs (two pairs in all) on obverse sides of a hinged tray means that HBO’s designers opted for a terrace arrangement, i.e. one disc overlapping another. Unless you plan on grabbing the second disc immediately after finishing with the first (which may not always be the case; let’s say you want to revisit the fourth or fifth episodes somewhere down the line), the second disc is inaccessible when the first one is in the case. Maybe this was dreamt up by some mad efficiency expert, but it’s moderately annoying for the collector.
Obligatory but well done. Skip the three-to-four-minute chats with critic Robert Polito ("Inside the Episodes"), as they’re light on insight and heavy on awkward cutting. Much better is the making-of documentary, which isn’t necessarily a mind-blowing lecture in semiotics or the sexual-social politics of the era or anything, but gives the miniseries a spirited, behind-the-scenes boost: Haynes clearly loves the material, the cinema, and loves to lecture extemporaneously for the camera, and he’s a joy to listen to. Candid behind-the-scenes footage and bloopers (incorporated shrewdly in the featurette rather than made to stand on their own) shows Kate Winslet goofing off after a take, and gives several of Mildred Pierce’s producers and designers an opportunity to share their contributions.
Better still is the audio commentary—three dudes sitting around talking about Mildred Pierce, James M. Cain, noir and melodrama, art direction, the sex, the music, Guy Pearce, and so on. It’s Mildred Pierce after all; that’s what you would expect, and that’s what you get. Haynes is obviously one of the most cinephilic and literate directors on this side of the Atlantic, and his impressive knowledge of the period, the movies, and the history dovetails nicely with Jon Raymond and Mark Friedberg’s equal levels of enthusiasm and expertise.
I have reservations about the packaging, but this is a decent transfer of a lovingly detail-oriented period melodrama, from one of its finest contemporary practitioners.