Two of the best films of 2011 were two miniseries available on DVD
One of the major American movie events of 2011 premiered as a miniseries on HBO—Todd Haynes’ evocative adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce. And a magisterial work from the late Raoul Ruiz—Mysteries of Lisbon, released initially in 2010 as a miniseries in Europe—got a limited U.S. release as a 270-minute feature film in 2011. Both works are getting wider release on DVD early in the new year.
Although perhaps not as widely known as the author’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce (just released on DVD, and available On Demand and online at HBO GO—www.hbogo.com) is Cain’s most respected novel, and Haynes and co-writer Jon Raymond have done justice to its full complexity in ways that the much-admired 1945 Hollywood version (with Joan Crawford) did not.
Kate Winslet has the title role in the new version. While she’s no larger-than-life diva (à la Crawford), she’s perfectly well-attuned to the exigencies of a surprisingly complex and enigmatic characterization. Cain’s Mildred is a remarkable and uncommon mixture of dynamic traits: independent woman, long-suffering mother, rebel against convention, seeker of respectability, adventurous businesswoman, apostle of positive thinking. Those combinations, which were distilled into noir-tinged soap opera in the Crawford version, regain their potential for homegrown tragic drama with Haynes and Winslet.
Winslet’s Mildred is a low-key blend of intuitive brilliance and tunnel-visioned resolve. She has a knack for strong relationships with an intriguing variety of men and women. Many of those relationships begin rather suddenly and end even more abruptly. There are some exceptions, the most crucial of which is with her daughter Veda, who is both a musical prodigy and preternaturally malicious problem child.
The portrayal of Veda is very uneven, but that matters relatively little alongside Haynes’ incisive presentation of the degrees to which (1) Veda is a dark, poisonous replica of her mother and (2) Mildred is an unwitting enabler and nurturer of Veda’s most hurtful excesses.
Evan Rachel Wood has a suitably viperish allure for the adult Veda (young Morgan Turner battles bravely with the impossible bad-seed child phase of the role). But the best supporting work comes from Mare Winningham as Mildred’s loyal blue-collar comrade in the restaurant business and from Guy Pearce as the vaguely seedy playboy who becomes Mildred’s second husband.
And there’s good work by Brían F. O’Byrne as Mildred’s first husband, the bland and passively reliable Bert Pierce, and by Melissa Leo as Lucy Gessler, Mildred’s worldly wise friend and confidante. James LeGros is a plausible, slovenly presence as a local wheeler dealer with whom Mildred mixes business and, briefly, pleasure.
The story is set in Los Angeles and vicinity in the 1930s, and the film has a rich period ambience. Even though the actual shooting was done on the East Coast, this flavorsome production recreates some vintage Southern California atmosphere.
Mysteries of Lisbon, cur-rently available On Demand and set for a Jan. 17 DVD release, is based on a 19th-century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco that is one of the classics of Portuguese literature. As filmed by Ruiz (mostly in Portuguese and French), it plays like something from one of the great modern Latin American novelists—Gabriel García Márquez or Julio Cortázar or Roberto Bolaño, perhaps.
The story has multiple protagonists—an orphaned child named Pedro da Silva; his mother, the Countess Ângela de Lima; a mysterious Brazilian who has several identities (businessman, pirate, hired thug); the wraithlike Elisa de Montfort; and—most crucially—the seemingly omnipresent Father Dinis, a priest who is an intermediary among most of the major characters and who also takes on the guise of an enterprising Gypsy named Sabino Cabra and is linked as well with a poet named Sebastião de Melo.
Ruiz shoots much of the action in a series of brilliantly staged and elaborately choreographed long takes. There are stories within stories, all of them contributing variously to a labyrinthine web of connections between shifting identities and convoluted family histories. It’s like a Franco-Portuguese variation on Masterpiece Theatre with a deadpan seasoning of spectacular surrealist accents.