If historical drama has taught us anything, it’s that most women from inter-war America could expect a certain amount of domestic violence from whiskey-stained brutish husbands. Obviously that type of thing was more common back then, but such scenes also served as a great way of making us root for the gentle and implausibly hot young girl in question. Things are very different in 30s California though; The sun shines, the depression is less than Great and the closest Mildred’s cheating hubby gets to a rage is throwing his lemonade down the sink. “Bert’s a good man really. It’s not his fault..” says Kate Winslet as she recounts the tale of her man’s desertion.
Based on the novel by James M Cain, Sky Atlantic’s new five-part miniseries is the tale of a woman with a small cake-baking business trying to raise her daughters in 1931 Glendale. Winslet brings her effortless likability to the role, but as you may have realised, this is hardly close to the bone stuff. More of a whimsy than a piece of must-see television.
While director Todd Haynes has painted the era effectively and coaxed some decent performances, this offering is neither hot nor cold and very little actually happens in this first episode. When it does, it’s difficult to really get behind the characters involved. Mildred’s whole deal is that she has too much pride to go for various positions which she considers beneath her. I say pride, but it soon becomes clear that she’s living in the thrall of her unfathomably posh daughter. Despite having two rather normal American parents, Veda Pierce’s snooty tones border on satirical. “Mother, where’s father?” and “She does appear to be frightfully middle-class..” etc.
Pierce junior may be more precocious than one of those modern day beauty pageant princesses, but at least she has chosen a position in the character spectrum. Mildred on the other hand, seems to be very confused about a great many things and that attitude rubs off on the audience. We want to root for a woman who’s been left by her bastard husband, but Mildred views affable Bert’s departure as “just one of those things”. We want to see a woman desperate to feed her children succeed, but Mildred wanders around town blustering and flustering about the need to get a job, before rejecting a couple of offers and heading off to the cafe. Money can’t be that tight – so do we really care?
There is one great scene in which our heroine tells a stuck-up lady to shove her housekeeping job.. “The lady terminates the interview Mildred – not the servant!” “It’s Mrs Pierce and I’m terminating it!” Yeah go Mildred! But these fits of brio are too few and far between. Things do get slightly more interesting in the second episode, but I fear that Sky Atlantic’s latest offering will have lost a few viewers by then. As heart-breakingly beautiful and authentically 30s as everything is, it’s all too easy to drift away from. Main love interest Guy Pearce doesn’t even make an appearance until the second hour!