Mildred Pierce (Winslet) is a homemaker in pre-Depression-era Glendale, Calif., who one day kicks out her philandering husband, Bert (Brian O'Bryne). An uncertain future looms: She has two young girls to support, no way to make a decent living, and America is plunging into crisis. But she's an excellent cook -- of pies, in particular -- so plucky Mildred eventually launches a successful restaurant that turns into a chain.
Along the way, personal crises interrupt her climb -- including the death of a daughter, the wayward behavior of another, Veda (Rachel Evan Wood in later episodes), and a falling out with her layabout playboy paramour, Monty Beragon (Guy Pearce).
MY SAY In a way, Mildred Pierce was Cain's own Scarlett O'Hara, and the bestselling novel that bore her name was his "Gone With the Wind." Joan Crawford would later land an Oscar for her portrayal of the doughty heroine who would triumph over tragedy only to stumble again because she loved not wisely but too well. It was all grand page-turning, potboiling melodrama of that distinct late-'30s variety.
What has Haynes ("I'm Not There") done to update this? Nothing. The mini is an impeccably drawn period piece and Haynes is obsessively loyal to the material, but after a while you wonder if it deserves his reverence. The story is conventional, the plot at times turgid or even implausible; Veda, for example, just happens to become a world-class soprano as an adult -- with hardly any training, ever.
And while this should be a tour de force for Winslet, her character is not particularly engaging. The performance tends to be monochromatic, and in the end, so is "Mildred Pierce." What's especially enjoyable here are the minor performances -- especially Pearce as the louche Monty -- and the many almost imperceptibly small details, right down to the crockery in a restaurant. The music, too, will carry you away to a distant time and place. (And much of the mini, by the way, was filmed on Long Island.)
BOTTOM LINE Some viewers will love this, others will be bored into sedation. I fell somewhere in between.