The Weekend's TV: The Kennedys, Fri, BBC2
Mildred Pierce, Sat, Sky Atlantic
A family portrait that's out of focus
Monday 27 June 2011
Let's get the History history out of the way first.
The Kennedys (currently airing on BBC2 after a History channel premiere) was originally commissioned by the History channel in the US, but never actually shown by the company that made it. Instead it was fostered out to a station called ReelzChannel, whose commitment to the highest standardz of drama and writing can only be guessed at from itz spelling. This was hardly a dignified end to an enterprise launched in a spirit of earnest and patriotic endeavour, but, if the epigraph of Friday night's episode is anything to go by, the producers of The Kennedys know how to cope. "Defeat is not bitter unless you swallow it", it ran – a statement intended to apply to an equally disappointing undertaking, the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which gave John F Kennedy his first real challenge as President.
The critical consensus on The Kennedys is that a dynastic story of Shakespearean complexity has been turned into a strip cartoon. And the consensus isn't entirely wrong. Tom Wilkinson plays Joe Sr., the manipulative patriarch of the Kennedy gang, as a B-movie villain, which isn't his fault really, since the script offers him no other options. It's his job to represent Crushing Paternal Expectation. Katie Holmes has been cast, with unrewarded optimism, as Jacqueline – and every long mile between the East Coast, bone-china breeding of the character and the West Coast cheerleader ordinariness of the performer is apparent every time she comes on screen. As the President, Greg Kinnear is pretty good, getting the accent, but repeatedly let down by the lines it colours. And throughout crudity is the real problem – an insistence on spelling out every bullet-point detail of the familiar story.
But The Kennedys has a West Wing problem too. That is, most of the likely audience for an American political series of this kind already have a template for Oval Office drama – and the endless battle between the ideal and the achievable. If you were looking to cast a real American President as Josiah Bartlet then you could hardly do better than Kennedy; good-looking, charming and – barring a few awkward historical facts – a knightly exemplar of American idealism. Unfortunately, because he's real he can't be anything like as compelling as Aaron Sorkin's fictional President. The screenwriters for The Kennedys find themselves shackled to history – and while the chain will stretch long enough to allow for the odd flourish ("We thought it would be useful for him to get some experience before going into private practice," Kennedy joked to the press after appointing Bobby as Attorney General), mostly they're in lockstep with the known events.
It's quite an achievement to make those events dull when you think about it. Entering office, Kennedy found himself inheriting a risky scheme to overthrow the Castro government while his brother Bobby immediately clashed with J. Edgar Hoover, a dangerously well-informed enemy. But to have a scene in which Hoover bellows about his intention to dig up the sexual dirt on Kennedy while actually standing in the lobby of the Justice Department doesn't amplify his menace, but defuses it. And Kennedy's clashes with his military advisers as the Bay of Pigs attack disastrously unwinds are similarly simplistic affairs, a couple of barked exchanges in which Top Brass Conservatism finds itself up against Youthful Integrity. If you want a really good fictional account of this fascinating period in American history I'd suggest you read Norman Mailer's terrific novel Harlot's Ghost. As for The Kennedys, those involved would do best to emulate what the President did in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs. Apologise and hope to get some credit for unexpected candour.
Mildred Pierce, Todd Haynes's meticulous reworking of the James L. Cain novel (not the Michael Curtiz film which will be in most people's minds) is a very different affair. This is unmistakably mission accomplished and unmistakably a work of controlled quality at every level. Whether that means you'll actually find it watchable is another question, because Haynes has a passion for domestic minutiae and highly charged drabness which is not a universal taste. His series starts not with a gunshot – as the Curtiz film did – but with a scene of apple-pie ordinariness. Mildred is baking and her husband, Bert, is mowing the lawn in a California suburb. But there's a hidden crack in the golden bowl; he's cheating on her and she's finally had enough. When Bert goes, Mildred is left with the task of maintaining a decent life for herself and a more than decent one for Veda, her lethally spoiled teenager.
The conditions are right for a kind of martyrdom by petty humiliation – and Kate Winslet is rather wonderful at conveying the stop-start business of swallowing her pride. She thinks it'll be easy to get down, chokes on the realities, stops and tries again, until she's working in a diner and on her way to the apotheosis the story has planned. She also lets a beer-gutted friend of her husband have his way with her, a sudden capitulation which neither Haynes's script nor Winslet's performance offered any explanation for. Moments like that feel numb, not patiently attentive, and call into question the somewhat self-regarding pace of the whole thing, which takes it as read that you have nothing better to do. You might very well not, given how meticulous and loving Haynes's sense of period is, but it's equally possible that you'll feel he summons up the Great Depression in ways he wouldn't have wanted.
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