A saga that cov­ers a cen­tury

A re­mark­able thing (and there are many) about the mini-se­ries is the great per­for­mances of its lead ac­tors

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOODCHEER - FRA­ZIER MOORE

THIS five-part, five-and-a-halfhour adap­ta­tion of the 1941 James M Cain novel is an un­hur­ried pe­riod piece that sets the viewer down in de­pres­sion- era Glen­dale, Cal­i­for­nia, 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 an eco­nomic cri­sis that, for the viewer, may strike a fa­mil­iar chord.

Mean­while, Mil­dred’s plight is mag­ni­fied – she is sud­denly a di­vor­cée, 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.

This Mil­dred Pierce has only a nod­ding ac­quain­tance with the much- re­mem­bered 1945 film, a mur­der who­dun­nit that brought its star, Joan Craw­ford, a Best Ac­tress Os­car.

Todd 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 on screen in 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 man­about-town Monty Ber­agon, with who Mil­dred shares im­pul­sive ro­mance, then much more.

Among movie­go­ers who know him, Guy is per­haps best known for his per­for­mance as the by-the-book cop in the 1997 crime noir L.A. Confidential and for Me­mento (2000), the re­verse-told nar­ra­tive of a man with no mem­ory on the trail of his wife’s killer.

Guy has also played a drag queen ( The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), Andy Warhol ( Fac­tory Girl), Harry Hou­dini ( Death De­fy­ing Acts) and a gritty 1880s out­law ( The Propo­si­tion, an Aus­tralian-set Western), among his many other roles.

And he made brief but key ap­pear­ances in re­cent back-to-back Academy Award best pic­tures, The Hurt Locker and The King’s Speech.

In Mil­dred Pierce, he sports a devil-may-care at­ti­tude, a pen­cil mous­tache 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,” Guy says.

“For her, it’s all about re­spon­si­bil­ity. For Monty, it’s not about re­spon­si­bil­ity at all.”

Guy 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 Todd, who ex­presses sur­prise that, by now, the 43-year-old Guy isn’t a house­hold name.

“Every­thing he does is so spot on! It’s amaz­ing.”

Todd spec­u­lates that if mar­quee sta­tus has eluded Guy, maybe Guy has also pur­posely evaded it.

“I think he wants to do more in­ter­est­ing work than what those lead­ing-man roles usu­ally are about, and what the bur­den of main­tain­ing that sta­tus is about.”

In a re­cent in­ter­view, Guy’s brawny frame is clad in jeans and a snug-fit­ting T-shirt, with bl a c k - r i m glasses ac­cent­ing his chis­elled face. That’s Guy’s re­al­life ap­pear­ance. But he has a gift for trans­form­ing him­self with each role, of­ten un­recogn i s a b l y. Guy is a char­ac­ter ac­tor on par with, say, the won­der­fully homely Paul Gia­matti – but with mati­neei­dol looks that never get in his way.

Guy, who was born in Eng­land but grew up in Aus­tralia, where he still lives, says he’s at a loss to iden­tify a com­mon link be­tween his di­verse perf o r mances, “other than how I look at them from the in­side, which is be­ing fas­ci­nated with the many aspects of what makes up this world and the peo­ple who are in it.

“I don’t re­ally un­der­stand those ac­tors who play the same role all the time. I think, ‘That’s great if you want to do that and you’re good do­ing that.’ But I just don’t get it.”

He sug­gests that his need to stay on the move creatively re­sulted from a four-year hitch on an Aus­tralian soap, Neigh­bours. His first act­ing job right out of col­lege, it left him “drown­ing in the monotony of it all”.

“There’s some­thing fas­ci­nat­ing to me about work­ing out a char­ac­ter,” he says, “and un­der­stand­ing it and be­com­ing it and rid­ing the wave of that char­ac­ter. And then go­ing, ‘Great, fan­tas­tic’, and putting it away.

“What’s next – that’s what keeps me go­ing.” – Sapa-ap

The minis­eries Mil­dred Pierce pre­mieres on M-net on Thurs­day.

A CHAL­LENGE: Kate Winslet as the strug­gling di­vor­cée Mil­dred, try­ing des­per­ately to sup­port her­self and her two young daugh­ters in the minis­eries.

CLEVER: Kate Winslet is a mar­vel as the am­bi­tious, re­source­ful Mil­dred Pierce. A COU­PLE: Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce as Mil­dred and Monty, who share an im­pul­sive ro­mance – and more.

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