Mildred Pierce (US - BD RA)
Jonathan checks out the HBO miniseries based on the James M. Cain novel..
Having it all would cost her everything. But for Mildred Pierce (Oscar winner Kate Winslet), success was worth the price. As a struggling single mother in Depression-era Los Angeles, Mildred is determined to fulfill the demands of her eldest daughter Veda (Evan Rachel Wood), surpassing societal expectations and the betrayal of lovers along the way. In this acclaimed 5-part miniseries, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Todd Haynes transforms the original James M. Cain novel into an epic movie event. (From the HBO synopsis)
I admit I wasn't sure to expect with Mildred Pierce. I've never read the James M. Cain novel and I haven't seen the acclaimed 1945 film starring Joan Crawford. Right from the start you can tell this isn't your typical miniseries. If it weren't for the episodic structure, everything about Mildred Pierce would feel like a cinematic experience thanks to the strong production values, top notch performances and a talented director like Todd Haynes at the helm. Choosing to do Mildred Pierce as a miniseries was a great call. I can imagine the story fitting into a two-hour film, but with five hour-long episodes Haynes and his fellow writers have the privilege of fully developing every character and their relationships to Mildred. These relationships, specifically that of Mildred and her daughter Veda, are what make the series intriguing to me.
In many circumstances a character like Mildred Pierce would be difficult to sympathize with. She's afraid of being seen as a waitress by her daughters. She has a lot of pride and the values she imposes on her children are elitist. It's part of the reason her daughter Veda is so difficult to please. Her plight doesn't come close to comparing with The Grapes of Wrath's Joad family. Yet Kate Winslet, through her extraordinary performance, makes the character identifiable. I've always been impressed by her, but I swear she's just getting better with every new project. Even if Mildred's struggles early on feel minor, watching her accept the crumbs of her former life and be treated like a lower class citizen still feels like a punch in the gut. The story unwinds at a pace that is sure to lose some viewer's interest. Where some will be bored, I found the pace to be measured; leaving room for reflective moments and nuance in the performances. There is melodrama, but it's inherent the story and the performers pull it off with grace and humility. Chances are if you feel on board for five hours of heavy Depression-era drama, you won't be too deterred by the pacing.
Kate Winslet isn't alone. She's in great company with players like Melissa Leo, Guy Pearce, Brian F. O'Byrne, and Evan Rachel Wood. Wood in particular does great as the older Veda Pierce. Veda is such an irritating character that praising the performance feels difficult, but that should say something about how good Wood's performance is. Morgan Turner, who plays the younger Veda, deserves a lot of praise for her performance too. She's got a bright future in this business. Leo is great, as always. Here, she plays Mildred's friend and serves as the voice of reason whenever Mildred's blinded by her pride. Brian F. O'Byrne is one of those guys who I know I've seen in other movies but have never taken the time to get familiar with his work. He's great here as Bert, Mildred's ex-wife. The cast does a terrific job of selling a story that might otherwise be difficult to like, and without their efforts and the strong production behind the picture, this miniseries could've been a disaster. Haynes does some of his best work behind the camera. He knows well that the style and flair that made some of his motion pictures so memorable doesn't belong here, and he approaches the material with a subtlety and focus that feels like a perfect match for the material.
HBO releases Mildred Pierce with an impressive 1080p transfer. Each one-hour episode takes up approximately 13 GB of the two BD-50's. I went into Mildred Pierce not expecting much from the video transfer, knowing that it was filmed on 16 mm. Well it certainly shows right from the start as detail is relatively low and the overall image is flat in appearance. But it serves the old fashioned elements of the story well, giving it an aged appearance. The film maintains a very consistent, thick grainy appearance that looks much nicer than most digital transfers from 16 mm sources. Occasionally the grain is distractingly harsh against bright backgrounds, but this is so infrequent and an expectation of the format that I don't hold it against the transfer. Much of the movies colour palette is a mixture of olive green and golden hues (much like the HBO packaging), so colours never quite look natural. The scheme reminds me of Amelie, but where that movie used it to create a warm atmosphere, it's used to give Mildred Pierce a dated, dreary look. It's a very fitting look that suits the series well, but it won't make for a reference-level video presentation. Outdoor scenes are much brighter and have more natural colours. Compression artefacts scarcely make themselves apparent and were only obvious to me when closely studying screen caps.
Mildred Pierce gets the full treatment in the audio department with a surprisingly strong DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. From the opening credit music the sound quality already makes itself known with a deep bass that puts the LFE channel straight to work. In fact all of the music in the show has a great depth to it, despite being older songs. The actual show scenes themselves are more dialogue-driven, and volume levels are perfect for hearing what characters have to say. Most of the spatial effects are restricted to the stereo channels, but they're well balanced. I noticed some things occurring on one side of the screen are balanced appropriately to the left or right speakers, where most 5.1 mixes keep most of the on-screen noise front and center. Environmental noise makes up the entirety of the rear channels. The diner that Mildred works at early in the show is filled with the sounds of customers having conversations and the sounds of silverware and plates shuffling around. You can hear the noises of the city quite well too during outdoor scenes. It's a surprisingly immersing mix for a drama miniseries, and I can't imagine fans of the show will be disappointed with how it sounds on their systems.
The Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Todd Haynes, Writer Jon Raymond and Production Designer Mark Friedberg is only available for two episodes; part three and part five. These are some of the more eventful episodes. Since the commentary doesn't start until part three, a decent chunk of the episode's commentary is dedicated to explaining the origins of the production. It's the kind of a stuff a behind-the-scenes featurette should cover, but once Haynes and company get through that territory the rest of the commentary track is incredibly informative and much more relative to what is happening in the episodes. For the most part they stay away from technical details, though there is some talk about set preparation and the filming process. The commentaries are mostly structured around the characters and how they chose to develop them and adapt them for this version of the story. They also cover some stylistic choices, pointing out some observations that weren't apparent to me when watching the episodes. Overall I found it very worthwhile and I learned more about the creation process than I ever could've asked for. I found myself wishing for more commentary tracks on the other three parts.
Inside the Episodes (23:26, HD) is a series of five short interviews with director Todd Haynes. Each one is approximately 4-5 minutes and they are episode-specific. I recommend watching them following each episode of the series, as Haynes has a lot of wisdom to share about the making of the episodes and his approach to the characters.
Making of Mildred Pierce (29:01, HD): This is a structured, polished behind-the-scenes documentary that I'm assuming was made for airing on HBO. There's interview footage from the actors and the filmmakers, as well as set designers and producers. Pieces of interviews come at you at a rapid pace while footage is shown from the set. Things start off with the interview subjects praising Kate Winslet and her talents. Then it goes into the look and feel of the movie, covering some of the excruciating detail that went into set decorations and the process of shutting down a street in New York and making it look like California. From there it goes into costume design, which an unbelievable amount of time and attention was given to. Mildred Pierce is a story that covers a wide array of classes and types of people, and seeing how much thought went into portraying these individuals really helped me to appreciate the production more. The next segment, titled "Surviving the Great Depression", which takes a look at the Depression-era aspect of the story and how the writers approached it. "Mildred & Her Men" is dedicated to various relationships Mildred has with men in the story. I wasn't too crazy about this segment. None of the observations couldn't be arrived at by watching the series, but it's still neat to hear the actor's takes on the characters. Lastly, the documentary looks into the relationship between Veda and Mildred, which is what interested me most in the series. Hearing the creators take on it was enriching. This isn't the longest "making of" feature, but it's packed with plenty of valuable information that will easily satisfy fans of the series.
While I was very impressed by Mildred Pierce, I can't recommend blindly purchasing it unless you're a huge fan of the cast or of Todd Haynes work. It's a very well-made take on the story with great production values and a perfect cast, but the pacing and the melodramatic material isn't bound to click with everybody. If you are already a fan of Mildred Pierce, then don't hesitate to pick up this home release from HBO. The video presentation is as good as any 16 mm transfer is bound to look, and the DTS-HD audio presentation serves the material well. The extras are valuable, though I wish there were commentary tracks for all five episodes instead of just two.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Release Date: 3rd January 2012
Disc Type: HD DVD Hybrid
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS 5.1 French, DTS 2.0 Spanish, DTS 5.1 English
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
Extras: Audio Commentaries with Todd Haynes, Jon Raymond, Mark Friedberg on parts 3 and 5, Inside the Episode for parts 1-5, The Making of Mildred Pierce, Episode Previews, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce, Evan Rachel Wood
Length: 336 minutes
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