Riva/Presents Extra author Heidi Rice delves into the evocative new Depression-era HBO serial starring Kate Winslet and Guy Pearce.
All right, already, I know I usually stick to movies for my Must-Watch Friday date, but after seeing all five episodes of this gloriously well-produced HBO serial in two sittings, I couldn't resist.
Now, if you're a fan of old Hollywood movies like moi you will have seen (and probably devoured) the vintage 1945 version of James M Cain's pulp novel in which Joan Crawford gets pooped on from a very great height by her selfish social-climbing daughter Ann Blyth and utter cad Zachary Scott. It's a fabulously camp melodrama in which Joan and her quivering letterbox lips take martyrdom to a whole new level, but for all it's fabulousness it does miss some of the stubtleties of Cain's story. Which isn't actually about a housewife-superstar-turned-domestic-goddess-turned-pitiable-drudge, but rather about a working woman who's healthy ambition goes hand-in-hand with an unhealthy relationship with her oldest daughter.
Kate Winslet's Mildred is no two-dimensional character. Right from the beautifully observed opening sequence when Mildred in her tidy 1930s California kitchen produces a perfectly frosted cake which she plans to sell to a neighbour, we realise that here is a woman who is a natural nurturer but has the strength of character to do what has to be done. She divorces her husband because he's cheating on her, but they manage to maintain a personable relationship because of their two young daughters. Mildred is no drama queen. If she sees a problem she tries to fix it. And she's an admirably hard worker. First getting a tiring job in a cafe to help pay the bills and then using the experience to open a successful restaurant.
But right from the start we also know Mildred's weakness. She's devoted to her daughters, the oldest of whom, Veda, is not only phenomenally strong-willed but also an inveterate snob even at the age of 10. And Mildred, like all of us, especially at the most testing times in our lives, can fail to see the faults in those she loves. She hides her new job from Veda because she knows her daughter will be ashamed of it, and falls far too easily for shallow society playboy Monty Beragon (brilliantly played by Guy Pearce) because he's exciting, handsome, effortlessly charming and exceptionally good in bed and her daughter approves of him.
I'm not going to tell you what happens after that, cos that would spoil the story, but this series is a wonderfully complex (and beautifully shot) mood movie which takes the time to explore each of it's main characters and offers no easy answers. No one, not even the ungrateful Veda, is completely bad or good. Everyone has redeeming features and believable weaknesses, and the passage of their lives is told in loving detail.
And maybe it doesn't have the tearjerking intensity of Joan's solid gold weepie, but its touching and tender and compellingly dramatic in its own right — and the beautifully understated ending is uplifting in a way you may not expect.
It's also really nice to see a period drama of this calibre that's not afraid to put a strong woman front and centre. So if you've got a few nights spare, you could definitely do worse... And by the way, did I mention Guy Pearce is very sexy and we get to see his bare buns!! (not that that's remotely relevant)
Heidi is currently writing her next Riva book while her current release Cupcakes and Killer Heels is going for a steal on Amazon Kindle at 99p. And her first By Request book One Amazing Night Baby - a 3-in-1 with Robyn Grady and Anne Oliver - is out now from M&B. She loves to talk about romance writing, her books, good movies and sexy guys (though not necessarily in that order) so contact her on Facebook, on Twitter (@HeidiRomRice) or through her blog or her website.