By Frazier Moore
AP Television Writer
A remarkable thing (and there are many) about the HBO miniseries “Mildred Pierce”: the way it breathes.
This five-part, five and a half hour adaptation of the 1941 James M. Cain novel is an unhurried period piece that sets the viewer down in Depression-era Glendale, Calif., and into the complicated world of its heroine.
But even as it inhabits a long-ago time and place, it also seems to dovetail with the current day. Leafy Glendale of 1931 isn’t exactly the Dust Bowl, but it, like the rest of the country, has been slammed by economic crisis that, for the viewer, may strike a familiar chord.
Meanwhile, Mildred’s plight is magnified: She is suddenly a divorcee, forced to find work to support herself and her two young daughters.
Ambitious and resourceful, Mildred will do that and then some: She builds a restaurant empire.
But during a saga stretching nearly a decade, Mildred, despite her business successes, will face class stigma (her sleepy burg just doesn’t cut it with the likes of nearby Pasadena) and a stormy relationship with her precocious, social-climbing daughter, Veda.
She will also confront her sexual self, exploring “aspects of herself she never knew existed,” in the words of Todd Haynes, who directed the miniseries and co-wrote its script. (The first two parts air Sunday at 9 p.m., with subsequent episodes unfolding the next two Sundays.)
This “Mildred Pierce” has only a nodding acquaintance with the much-remembered 1945 film, a murder whodunit that brought its star, Joan Crawford, a best actress Oscar.
Haynes (whose previous films include “Far From Heaven” and “I’m Not There”) calls his version “an intensely faithful adaptation of the novel.” Indeed, it feels like a gracefully direct translation into pictures and sound, complete with breathing room for the audience “to think and to draw connections yourself,” as he puts it.
Kate Winslet is a marvel as Mildred, who is onscreen nearly every scene as she goes through many changes and the pressures that propel them.
Also starring are Melissa Leo, James Le Gros, Brian F. O’Byrne and Evan Rachel Wood (as Veda in adulthood).
But Guy Pearce shines in a pivotal supporting role as dashing man-about-town Monty Beragon, with whom Mildred shares impulsive romance, then much more.
Pearce sports a devil-may-care attitude, a pencil mustache and a roadster as Monty, who sweeps Mildred off her feet at the end of Episode 2. He re-enters her life years later, in Episode 5.
Fans of the original film will remember Monty (played by Zachary Scott) as the victim of a shooting that frames the film’s murder mystery: Did Mildred do it?
This time, Monty is never at risk as he offers a vivid counterpoint to Mildred at both ends of her journey.
“Monty has been brought up with almost a religious belief that money is never a problem and it’s always there, whereas Mildred is a working-class lady and a survivor,” Pearce says. “For her, it’s all about responsibility. For Monty, it’s not about responsibility at all.”
Pearce nails Monty’s entitled but engaging air of privilege — for example, when Mildred asks his profession.
Monty, who owns part of a lucrative fruit-export business, describes it nonchalantly as, “Oranges, grapefruit — something like that.”
“Guy conveys an entire class at a specific time and place in the way that he delivers that line,” says Haynes, who acknowledges surprise that, by now, the 43-year-old Pearce isn’t a household name. “Everything he does is so spot-on! It’s amazing.”