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Interior shot of a suburban family house in Glendale, California, 1931: a white-middle aged woman is baking. Hands covered in flour, she's using a rolling pin to shape a layer of pastry with the same care and focus as a sculptor working with clay. With this deceptively quiet opening, HBO brings to the small screen the miniseries Mildred Pierce, adapted from the 1941 novel of the same name, written by James M. Cain.
Now played by the Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet, the role of Pierce was memorably brought to the movie screen by actress Joan Crawford in 1945 (whose performance earned her an Oscar). The touching and devastating story of Mildred Pierce’s journey has been brought back to life by the Academy Award director of Far From Heaven Todd Haynes, with an incredible cast including this year’s Academy Award winner Melissa Leo and the always superb Evan Rachel Wood.
Welcomed by audiences and critics as a «quiet, heartbreaking masterpiece», with over a million viewers, Kate Winslet is rumored to be in the running for an Emmy Award for her intense and visceral embodiment of this singular mother-of-two and divorcée in 1930’s America, whose plan for self-reinvention centres around food and her seemingly unattainable desire of managing a restaurant by herself. A true feminist before her time, Mildred is determined to do whatever it takes to achieve her dream, a dream she’s ready to "bake" from scratch.
Mildred is an outstanding "pie maker" whose desserts add a touch of sweetness to her own sad life, which seems too full of tears, betrayal and regrets. She married a man who clearly doesn't love her, so she bakes. Constantly. She bakes every day, trying to fill that hole of resentment, trying to take her mind off the fact that her husband (played by actor Brían F. O'Byrne) is sleeping with another woman who lives just a few blocks away. For Mildred, pies and cakes are part of her cure, but seem to hover on the border of a compulsive addiction.
When her husband finally leaves her, she finds herself alone as a single mother in the Depression-era, trying to struggle between a national economic crisis and the private shame of being divorced; it soon becomes clear that even by baking pies for her entire neighborhood will never be enough to provide for her family.
That's when her relationship with food begins to change. No longer merely a method of keeping her fears and insecurity at bay; baking becomes a way of life – of literally making a living, and the means to a greater end: redemption.
So putting her pride aside, she enters a diner in Hollywood, walks into the kitchen and asks the owner if she can serve the tables. She's never done such a thing before, as a respectable, middle-class woman, her role in restaurants had always been that of the customer, not the one behind the counter. And this shift is by no means merely logistical, but becomes transformative on a deeper level for Mildred.
She begins spending a lot of time at the diner, working as a waitress, taking orders, earning tips, learning what it means to manage a restaurant, dealing with customers and vendors. Dressed in her uniform, she studies on the sly, between serving roast turkeys and cutlets. And after a long period of sacrifice and struggle she finally opens her own “fine place”, a business that will give her back her own dignity. «Why are there all sort of restaurants for fish and red meat, but there's nothing just for chicken?»she asks herself one day. And the answer she came up with? Mildred's.
While set in the past, Mildred's story is an insightful perspective for today's moment of economic hardship. Even in the most uncertain of times, as Mildred says people «will always need to eat». Even in the Depression-era of the ‘30s, food remained – and will continue to remain – an essential expense and a fundamental part of what helps society connect with one another.
Mildred herself is the precursor of a kind of Green Fried Tomatoes culinary dream: she passes from being a simple woman in a white dress, to being the cook of a successful "chicken oriented" restaurant. She goes from being weak and with no expectations in life, to being a pioneer woman for her gender in business. She becomes businesswoman herself, fighting against chauvinism, struggling with her troubled daughter, trying not to get stuck in the selfishness of the men around her. And it all started with a lemon curd pie.