Wow, Todd Haynes really loves these tragic rise-and-fall dramas that are about either gays or women. Seriously, even when he was making a film about Bob Dylan's life, as lived by various people, all of whom are men, he had one of the men played by Cate Blanchett. Granted, Haynes also has great taste in casting great performers, and Cate Blanchett's as good as an actress can get, and certainly put on a masterful performance, but, come on Todd, we all know that you crowbarred her in there either because you can't help but have a woman somewhere as the focus in a rise-and-fall drama or because, seeing as how Blanchett's Jude Quinn character is straight, you could indirectly make the main focus gay. Maybe it was both, and "I'm Not There" was, in a stretch of a way, what his career was leading up to, which seems appropriate, because it was pretty awesome, even it was maybe a tad too long. Okay, outside of the whole gay or girl lead in a rise-and-fall drama thing, I'm starting to see another pattern in these Todd Haynes efforts, because this miniseries is also really good (Though not quite "I'm Not There" awesome, so calm down, kids), though also a touch too long. Over five-and-a-half hours, it better be good, and thus, it was. Still, make no mistake, like the story in a Todd Haynes film, or in this case, miniseries, for every rise in this rewarding effort, there is a fall.
The near-universal complaint is that the series is just too blasted padded, and quite frankly, yeah, it pretty much is, though there are spots where that's easy to forget. Major situation with this series is that it is tainted by the dreaded and rare "And Then" type storytelling, where the atmosphere in the story shifts are so smooth that they feel almost non-existent, or at the very least way too convenient. Todd Hayne's tightens everything to a fault, both in story structure and atmosphere, making many points flows too comfortably into each other, until after a while, steam is lost, only to be regained, but still not fast enough to stop you from checking the clock. A less prevalent, yet still rather sharp strike to investment is the occasional bit of sentimentality, which rarely descends into terribly cheesy or melodramatic, yet still goes powered by a rather saccarine tone and exacerbated by the cliches found almost throughout this saga. The story isn't beat-for-beat everything you'd seen before, yet much is familiar, especially the characters, who go as far down as to have Melissa Leo as my dreaded nemesis of a despicable pet peeve cliche character: That sassy, know-it-all best girlfriend who seems too blasted different from our lead to be her friend. The storytelling is familiar and flawed, yet as far as the story's overall structure, it all comes back to the consensus that the series is just too bloated, with excess, occasional redundant material, spawned from countless loose ends, spilling in near-relentlessly, so much so that Guy Pearce's Monty Beragon character doesn't show up until a little more than halfway through the second episode, with the time jump not coming in until episode four, thus making for an overlong and overly branched - to the point of being inconsistent in focus after a while - story that loses too much steam to stand as a true knockout. However, as it stands, Haynes' saga remains a rewarding one that's well worth the sit - overlong though it may be -, boasting quality we expect no less from HBO.
Cinematographer Edward Lachman shoots the series as handsome as any given Todd Haynes effort, dabbing subtlety within the grace that makes the occasional lovely shot even lovlier and, with a degree of scope, captures the razzle dazzle of California, circa 1930s. Speaking of which, HBO does a fine job of reconstructing the era and location with as much production quality as any given good period piece produced nowadays in the state in question, with Todd Haynes setting the tone of the era with much carefulness, as to make sure that the era doesn't jump out too much at you, but still make sure that it bounces just enough for you to understand the setting and how it helps in defining our story. Still, capturing the era is not at all the only thing that Haynes does a fine job of as director, for although his work is too spotty for this saga to really knock you out, Haynes is consistent in absorbing enough intrigue to keep you going, only to occasionally break from that steady and really cut deep with especially striking intrigue and, at times, powerful, if not piercing emotional resonance. Episode two, in particular, ends on a crushing not that, I must admit, had me tearing up (If it's something with Kate Winslet, I might end up crying a bit at some point, though it's usually because of her taste in film's with resonance, and not because the film was as tear-jerkingly bad as "Heavenly Creatures"), as Haynes managed to draw sensational dramatic depth in that one instance, yet it's not the only time he accomplishes such a task, though neither the resonance of such emotional occasions nor the consistency in intrigue could be as intense as it is without Haynes recieving great help from his slew of talented performers. The cast is star-studded and used quite well, with each member being as charismatic as you'd expect them to be, and a few just plain stealing the show, whether it be Morgan Turner and the absurdly later-to-arrive (It just about took longer for us to get to the time jump than the amount of time the time jump skipped) as the ambitious yet still, in many ways, rather ignorant Morgan Turner, who fears for her future as it draws ever nearer as she tries to break from the limitations of her upbringings and gathers darker depths along the way, or Guy Pearce as the slick but off-putting charmer with layers that is the fascinating Monty Beragon character. Everyone has their time in the sun, yet the spotlight never drifts too far from the side of the lady of the hour, Kate Winslet, who earns that right ever step of the way. Mildred Pierce is a mother, lover and business woman whose struggles never cease, especially in her day and age, and will change her all but entirely, and it's a process that Winslet nails with hypnotic depth, emotion and transformativeness, all spiced up by layers that never betray the depths of our lead, thus making for a predictably enchanting performance that leaves Winslet to embody the icon and carry her story in a seemingly effortless and deeply compelling fashion that helps in ultimately making this effort a generally satisfying one.
At the end of the day it pretty much takes to watch this thing, smooth-to-fault storytelling falls into play at points, with the occasional bit of sentimentality and quite a few cliches following not too far behind, yet it's the excessive bloating and uneven focus that leaves this saga to lose so much steam that, after a while, you're left hoping for more from less, yet you still get much more of what you want than not, with handsome cinemtography complimenting the fine and transportingly authentic production designs and Todd Hayne's consistently intriguing and, at times, dramatically piercing direction, which wouldn't be as effective as it is without the colorful star cast, lead by a moving, transformative and all around effortlessly riveting performance by Kate Winslet, thus ultimately leaving Todd Hayne's "Mildred Pierce" to stand as an ultimately compelling and worthwhile saga.
3/5 - Good