DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. It's been 10 years since Kate Winslet starred on HBO in a miniseries remake of Mildred Pierce. This weekend, she's back, playing the title role in another very somber HBO drama, "Mare Of Easttown." This time, she plays the lead detective in a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania who is haunted by an unsolved case, as well as her own past. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Mare Of Easttown" is both a mystery story and a character study. HBO provided only five of its seven installments for preview, so I don't know precisely how its central mystery concludes, much less how satisfying that ending will be. But based on the five hours that begin rolling out on Sunday, we do get to really learn about and care about many of these residents of Easttown - so well, in fact, that by the time the camera pans across their faces as they all sit in church listening to a sermon, you can almost hear their individual thoughts. What takes longer to learn are their secrets and their hidden pasts. And they all seem to have them, including Mare.
Mare is a former member of the town's high school basketball team that won a championship decades ago thanks to Mare's buzzer-beating winning shot. There's a silver anniversary celebration being planned, but Mare is focused on a different anniversary. It's been one year since the daughter of another member of that same team went missing. Mare, now the lead detective of the Easttown Police Force is haunted by that past event but also by tragedies in her own past, which are revealed slowly throughout this miniseries.
And then, suddenly, there's another case for Mare to deal with when a young woman is found dead. Mare, brings Dylan, the girl's boyfriend and the father of their baby named D.J., to the station for interrogation. This town is so small and the people's lives so intertwined that when Dylan's cell phone vibrates while they're talking, and a woman's first name comes up, Mare guesses instantly who it is and doesn't let up. You can tell a lot about Mare and her personality and attitude by the way she keeps pushing Dylan's buttons during the interrogation. Here's Kate Winslet as Mare, with Jack Mulhern as Dylan.
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JACK MULHERN: (As Dylan Hinchey) Like I said, things aren't really good between us right now. So we...
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KATE WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Brianna. Is that Brianna del Raso (ph)? She your new girlfriend?
MULHERN: (As Dylan Hinchey) I don't have a new girlfriend.
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) What time did you leave the woods?
MULHERN: (As Dylan Hinchey) I got home around midnight.
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) That's not what I asked. I asked you what time you left the woods.
MULHERN: (As Dylan Hinchey) Well, if I got home around midnight, then I probably left the woods at 11:45. You can ask my mom if you want to.
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Why would I ask your mom?
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MULHERN: (As Dylan Hinchey) Because she was awake...
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) It's OK if you want to go ahead and get that. You can - I can give you...
MULHERN: (As Dylan Hinchey) No. She was in the den, and she was feeding D.J. and - 'cause his teeth hurt. And she wanted to give him some milk, and she asked me to get some, and I didn't know where any was. And...
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Well, I usually keep mine in the fridge.
MULHERN: (As Dylan Hinchey) Well, the kitchen fridge was full, so we usually keep some extra out in the garage fridge, so that's what where I went, all right?
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) Hey, Dylan, Dylan, listen. Did you have anything to do with Erin's death last night?
MULHERN: (As Dylan Hinchey) No.
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) 'Cause looking at things right now, you're the only person with a reason to commit this crime.
MULHERN: (As Dylan Hinchey) I didn't kill Erin. You're not going to put that [expletive] on me. I didn't kill her.
WINSLET: (As Mare Sheehan) I hope you're not lying.
BIANCULLI: Mare is very good at asking questions because she seems to go through her whole life interrogating people and keeping them at arm's length. That's true even of her mother, who's played here with yet another of her recent fabulous performances by Jean Smart. Guy Pearce, who costarred with Winslet in "Mildred Pierce" a decade ago, plays a potential romantic interest, but Mare is much more wary than interested. And Evan Peters from the "X-Men" and "American Horror Story" franchises plays a county police investigator paired with Mare on the new case. She's even more wary of him. But like everyone else in Easttown, they have their own issues, motives and perspectives.
Brad Inglesby created "Mare Of Easttown," and Craig Zobel directed it with different perspectives in mind from the start. The way the camera lingers when Mare leaves a room, so we get to see the wry smile or annoyed frown on Jean Smart's face as Mare's put upon mother is almost like giving other characters equal time. And that goes not only for Mare's mom but at other moments for Mare's daughter, her ex-husband and almost everyone else in town. Yet this writer-director team holds back as much as it gives. Many scenes you'd expect to be showcased happen off camera instead. And what is shown on camera, no matter what character is being followed, is more likely than not to be bleak.
"Mare Of Easttown" is a drama that draws you in, but the world it's drawing you into is a dark one. "Mare Of Easttown" is reminiscent of some other recent HBO miniseries, dramas about murders and hidden secrets starring actresses who are taking time off from the movies to explore longer, often more challenging roles on the small screen. HBO alone has given us several powerful dramas about women investigating or harboring sinister secrets in their own small towns, including Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in "Big Little Lies" and Amy Adams in "Sharp Objects."
Like both of those, "Mare Of Easttown" is relentlessly somber yet increasingly captivating and features a bold, brave leading performance. Mare, the character played by Kate Winslet, isn't always likable or even relatable in this new series. Mare has made some bad mistakes in her life and is about to make a few more. But though the character of Mare is flawed, the miniseries ''Mare Of Easttown" is not. Add it to HBO's increasingly long list of excellent miniseries showcasing some equally excellent actresses.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. On Monday's show, we hear from Julie Lythcott-Haims, whose best-selling book warned parents about the dangers of micromanaging their kids' lives. Her new book, "Your Turn," has advice aimed at young adults trying to cope in today's world. And we'll talk about her powerful memoir, "True American" (ph), about the emotional and cultural challenges she faced growing up as a mixed-race child. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES AND MILT JACKSON'S "SOUL MEETING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.