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'Mildred Pierce' goes back to novel roots

Kate Winslet and Guy Pierce in

Kate Winslet and Guy Pierce in "Mildred Pierce" Photo Credit: Handout

Fans of the classic film noir “Mildred Pierce,” for which Joan Crawford won an Oscar in 1946, will hardly recognize the new miniseries bearing its name.

That’s because, in making the 51/2-hour HBO program that kicks off Sunday night, director/co-writer Todd Haynes, set his sights not on the 1945 movie, but on the James M. Cain novel that inspired it.

Still, it’s always a gamble to invest so much time and energy in reviving such iconic material.

Kate Winslet gives one of her best performances as single mom Mildred, who runs a small chain of Los Angeles restaurants and struggles to connect with her daughter Veda. The story is set against the economic crisis of the 1930s, making it very relatable to today’s viewers.

Adapting Cain
Surprisingly, given Cain’s renown for crafting such tales of murder as “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Haynes found none of the hardboiled elements that characterized the 1945 film in the actual novel by Cain.

“In this, for the first time, he was doing a third-person-omniscient telling of a mother-daughter relationship,” Haynes said.

Cain “hated the murder theme,” Haynes added, which was imposed on the movie because of the successful noir adaptations of Cain’s other famous works. “The only reason to do it, really, was to do it quite differently from how the original film had done it.”

Patient storytelling
While movies these days tend to make use of every sped-up stylistic trick in the book, Haynes purposefully opted for a restrained naturalistic approach, with longer takes and a “dressed down” feel that harkened back to the predominant mode of filmmaking of the ’70s, the last Hollywood golden age.

“It was a period when I felt the filmmaking … made you think about the times you were in. It felt like they were informed by the cultural moment,” Haynes said. “I thought … maybe let’s trick people into feeling the same kind of consciousness.”

Kate the great
Haynes knew he wanted Winslet for his lead because “for some reason while reading the book I started thinking about Kate.”

Fellow cast member Guy Pearce, no acting slouch given his prior starring roles in “L.A. Confidential” and “Memento” among others, relished the chance to work with his Oscar-winning co-star.

“She’s genius. There’s no doubt about it,” he said.

Turning NY into SoCal
The filmmaker and his crew faced the daunting task of shooting the film’s period Southern California locations in various areas of Queens, Long Island and Peekskill.

“When we found the Gables neighborhoods in Queens that had Spanish architecture from the 1920s, it was like ‘Oh, my God!’” Haynes said. “We knew we could almost do everything else, but that was the missing core component that just [made it clear] it was meant to be.”

On TV: The five-part miniseries “Mildred Pierce” premieres on HBO Sunday at 9 p.m.

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