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(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli.

At the start of the fall TV season, HBO gave us the best new series of the year with "Boardwalk Empire," which was set in the Prohibition era in Atlantic City, New Jersey. This weekend, HBO launches an ambitious, impressive five-hour miniseries, and as with "Boardwalk Empire," it's set during the Depression.

But this one, called "Mildred Pierce," is more intimate and, in the end, more emotional and more haunting. It's based on the 1941 novel by James M. Cain, about a middle-class woman trying to survive and feed and nurture her young daughters during very tough times. In 1945, it was one of three Cain stories made into a hit Hollywood movie in as many years - after "Double Indemnity," but before "The Postman Always Rings Twice." And the title role of "Mildred Pierce" won Joan Crawford an Oscar.

This new HBO version hands the title role to Kate Winslet, who does wonders with it. It's directed by Todd Haynes, who wrote the screenplay adaptation with Jon Raymond, and they put almost all the drama's weight on the shoulders of their leading lady. Todd Haynes also directed "I'm Not There," that brilliant fable of a movie in which different actors and actresses played Bob Dylan at various times in his life. But for "Mildred Pierce," it's all about keeping it real - astoundingly real, down to the period magazines and wallpaper, the food on the diner plates and the slightly muted photography.

Remaking the story of "Mildred Pierce" at this point in this decade is particularly shrewd. As the drama opens - in Glendale, California, in 1931 -Mildred's marriage to her husband Bert breaks up suddenly. It leaves her, in the early years of the Depression, with two young daughters, no prospects for work and no idea how to keep going.

It's easy to relate that sort of anxiety to today's financial meltdown; and even easier because Kate Winslet, early on, vanishes completely into the role of Mildred. She's determined to provide for her daughters, but a visit to an employment agency generates nothing except a lecture about how she isn't qualified to do anything but cook or clean; and, during hard times, there are plenty of people willing to do that.

But when Mildred is asked out for a date by a predatory friend of her soon-to-be-ex-husband's, her neighbor has some more practical advice. And the neighbor is played by Melissa Leo, who follows up her Oscar-winning role in "The Fighter" with another winning performance.

(Soundbite of HBO movie, "Mildred Pierce")

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Ms. MELISSA LEO (Actor): (as character) Since when was Wally Bergin interested in you?

Ms. KATE WINSLET (Actor): (as Mildred Pierce) I don think he ever was but the second he heard Bert was gone...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) ...almost funny the effect it had on him.

Ms. LEO: (as character) Yeah, I forgot to mention that. The morals they give you credit for, you'd be surprised. To him, you are a red hot momma the second he found out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) Found out what?

Ms. LEO: (as character) Grass widow. Well, from now on honey, you're fast.

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) Are you serious?

Ms. LEO: (as character) I am and they are.

BIANCULLI: At first, this seems like a very old-fashioned, unenlightened narrative, suggesting that the only way for a woman to survive is to throw herself at a man. And even when the employment agent calls back with an out-of-the-blue job offer, Mildred doesn't see it as suitable.

Unidentified Woman: (as Mrs. Turner) I was over in Beverly's the other night and I got talking to this lady that's going to marry this director. He doesn't know it yet but his house is in for a big shakeup. So, she needs a housekeeper. And on account of all that fine domestic efficiency you were telling me about, I told her about you.

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) Well, I hardly know what to say. You see, I recently came across a similar job, it's a waitress and I...

Unidentified Woman: (as Mrs. Turner) And you turned it down?

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) Well, I mean I couldn't. I I just can't go home and face my children knowing their mother works all day at taking tips and wearing a uniform and mopping up crumbs.

Unidentified Woman: (as Mrs. Turner) But you can face them just fine when there's nothing left to eat?

Ms. WINSLET: (as Mildred Pierce) That will never be the case, Mrs. Turner.

BIANCULLI: It's no accident that in these early scenes, Mildred doesn't talk much. It takes a while for her to find her voice, and even longer to find a direction - especially since the thought of taking that waitress job makes her sick. Literally sick. But she takes it anyway, and uses her skill at baking pies to bring in some extra money from the diner, and to start her on her way.

But this is James M. Cain, not some fairy tale, so not every turn in the story is a triumph, and not every man she meets is a prince. As actors, however, the men in Mildred's life, led by Guy Pearce as a dashing young playboy, are charming.

And it's not until the fourth hour that Mildred's eldest daughter grows up enough to be played by Even Rachel Wood - the vampire queen from "True Blood" -but she's worth the wait. Her defiant disdain of her mother's work ethic is one of the key elements in this miniseries, and, ultimately, provides its biggest payoff. And it's a different payoff than the one in the 1945 movie because this version is more faithful to the original novel.

I really, really enjoyed this miniseries - especially because it's perfect as a miniseries. The sheer length of the drama, and the journey Mildred has to take, makes her struggles more potent, more painful and more real. "Mildred Pierce" is a masterpiece of modern film noir - or, if you prefer, TV noir - and it's anchored by a performance by Kate Winslet that is unlikely to be beaten at next year's Emmys.

Oh, and one last thing: HBO's "Mildred Pierce" will make you hungrier for pie than any television offering since "Twin Peaks" and "Pushing Daisies." Select your TV snacks accordingly.

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BIANCULLI: Coming up, we listen back to part of a 1992 conversation between Terry Gross and Lanford Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who died this week.

This is FRESH AIR.

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