When movie stars play unglamorous characters, the results are usually great or horrific. For every Nomadland, with Frances McDormand's graceful turn as a woman scraping by financially on the road, there is a blight like Hillbilly Elegy, with Glenn Close twanging and condescending away as a hardscrabble country granny. Kate Winslet does much more than get it right as the title character in Mare of Easttown. She is gloriously real as a police detective trying to hold her personal life together in the small Pennsylvania town where she grew up. The HBO series is a dynamic portrait of a woman grappling with her troubled family and friends, and her own buried grief, all wrapped in an absorbing crime drama. Over the years, Winslet has made stellar choices, including the television series Mildred Pierce, and most recently the film Ammonite (unfairly overlooked in this year's awards season). This new series continues an amazing run.
The show's title says it all. Mare (she's never called anything more formal) is inseparable from her town. Winslet tells us who Mare is at a glance, with hair in a messy ponytail, a flannel shirt, and above all a harried look on her face. There is nothing affected about Winslet's performance, not a hint of distance from or looking down on the woman she is playing. On the day we first see her, Mare attends the 25th anniversary celebration of the high-school basketball team she led to a championship, with women who are still her friends. At work, she deals with small-level burglaries and is stymied by the case of a young woman who has been missing for a year. The missing woman and a new murder keep the plot moving, but Mare trying to solve the problems of her own life and the mystery of her future are the reasons the show feels so poignant and true.
Winslet lets us see Mare's distress long before its causes are revealed, and also displays her resilience, without making a big deal out of either one
Brad Ingelsby, who created and wrote the series, has a feel for how to use and tweak a formula. He also wrote the 2020 film The Way Back, with Ben Affleck as an alcoholic who tries to right his life by coaching high school basketball. The idea of that movie is hokey, but by the end we understand why that old formula is effective.
Ingelsby does even better here with the small-town crime drama, even if the story is a bit overwrought. Easttown seems to be a place of constant misery, and at times too hermetic to be true. Everyone knows everyone else and each secondary character has an extra twist of a problem. There is a teenaged single mother who lives with her belligerent father. The mother of the missing woman also has cancer. It's not enough that Mare is divorced. Her ex-husband is newly engaged and lives in the house adjacent to her back yard. But the many sharp performances overcome that melodrama. Jean Smart, a master at creating vivid small roles, adds a lighter touch as Mare's acerbic, well-meaning mother, who has moved in with her daughter to help care for Mare's four-year-old grandson.
The supporting cast includes Guy Pearce (right) as a local creative writing teacher and Winslet's romantic interest (Credit: HBO)
The series has cliff hangers, but it also adds suspense, and enhances its naturalism by dropping us into Mare's life and gradually revealing more about her past. At first we don't even know who her grandson's parent is. Winslet lets us see Mare's distress long before its causes are revealed, and also displays her resilience, without making a big deal out of either one. It's all Mare can do to put one foot in front of the other, and fascinating to see if or when she'll be shaken out of that state.
The characters are beleaguered but exude the sense of thinking that's life
Director Craig Zobel creates a visceral texture for Easttown, mirroring the authenticity without condescension of Winslet's performance. The houses are ordinary and middle-class, not new but not poverty porn. The characters are beleaguered but exude the sense of thinking that's life.
Outsiders don't fit neatly into the series any more than they do in the town, though. Guy Pearce adds a touch of sophistication as a creative writing teacher at a local college. The character seems parachuted in to add romantic interest.
Evan Peters, far from his roles as Pietro in Wandavision and Quicksilver in the X-Men movies, arrives as a county detective sent to Easttown to help with the murder investigation. Together he and Mare question the local priest, who happens to be her cousin. "Anybody you're not related to?" he asks. "No," she says. It's their best moment. Otherwise, Peters' character is so generic he could have been played by almost anyone.
In the fifth episode, the last available for review of the season's seven, one of the investigations leads to high drama and action. Whatever happens in the episodes to come, at its heart Mare of Easttown is the story of a fierce, ordinary heroine, beautifully played. No fright wigs, no prosthetics. No need.
Mare of Easttown premieres on 18 April on HBO Max in the US and on 19 April on Sky Atlantic/Now TV in the UK.
Love film and TV? Join BBC Culture Film and TV Club on Facebook, a community for cinephiles all over the world.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.