| 0.8°C Dublin

Kate's great as Mildred

I REMEMBER bits and pieces of Mildred Pierce, the 1945 Hollywood melodrama starring the always scary-looking Joan Crawford as a self-sacrificing mother who does everything to please the most selfish daughter in the world and winds up embroiled in a murder trial.

There's no murder in HBO's new, five-part Mildred Pierce, which stars Kate Winslet as the eponymous heroine, because there was no murder in James M Cain's original novel. That plot element was tacked on by the studio.

The HBO imprint is usually a gilt-edged guarantee that what we're about to see is quality television, and Mildred Pierce oozes quality from every frame. The recreation of the time and place -- suburban Glendale, California in 1931, when the Great Depression was beginning to bite deep -- is flawless. Or as flawless as it can be for someone who wasn't actually around in 1931.

Winslet is an actress who can either be irritating or captivating. Here she's the latter, brilliantly evoking the anguish, fear and confusion of a woman whose world has suddenly disintegrated around her.

No sooner has Mildred finished decorating a cake for sale than her cheating husband Bert (Brian F O'Byrne) tells her he's walking out on her and taking the car with him, leaving her to fend for their two daughters: Ray, an uncomplicated little tomboy, and the older Veda, a precocious, pretentious teenager who, once Evan Rachel Wood starts playing her in the next episode, will grow up to be a monstrously greedy and ungrateful snob.

With no income and no skills to speak of, Mildred is aghast at having to take a step down the social ladder and look for a job. In a wonderful scene that positively crackles with tension, she has a humiliating interview for a domestic position with the snooty Mrs Forrester (Hope Davis) and makes the fatal faux pas of sitting down before she's told.

"It's customary, Mildred, for the servant to sit on the mistress's invitation," sneers Mrs Forrester, "not on her own initiative." Momentarily recovering her pride, Mildred snaps: "It's Mrs Pierce, if you don't mind, and I'm terminating this interview."

Almost by accident, she falls into a witnessing job at a restaurant where, just hours earlier, she'd witnessed a dozen Mrs Forrester-types treating the staff like something they'd stepped into on the pavement.

Desperate to hide the truth from her daughters, she begs her best friend Lucy (Melissa Leo) not to tell them what she's doing. "I just can't have them knowing anything about it. Veda in particular."

Alas, the final shot reveals Veda, outside the window with her back to us, has been eavesdropping the whole time. Uh-oh.

Director and co-writer Todd Haynes wallows in period detail. The camera lingers lovingly on every piece of furniture, every car, every item of clothing. There's a price to be paid for this, of course, and here it's pacing. This first hour was sometimes languorous to the point of funereal.

Mildred Pierce won't be to the taste of those who like their dramas to move at Ferrari-speed but for the rest of us, it looks like being a classy treat.

And speaking of Ferrari-speed, Top Gear is back. The formula is as before: pointless and ridiculous stunts mixed with self-indulgent banter by the three middle-aged "boys". A brief sprinkling of genuine star quality was provided by the utterly charming Alice Cooper, this week's Star in a Reasonably Priced Car. My daughter and I saw him live in London last Halloween; he's a supreme rock 'n' roll showman and a thorough gentleman.

A look at the evolution of the E-type Jaguar, the flat-out sexiest car ever built, which turns 50 this year, wasn't half-bad either. Sadly, Jeremy Clarkson's head, which could obscure a double-decker bus, kept getting in the way.

Mildred Pierce ****

Top Gear **