October 29, 2014 at 3:19 pm #338171
Academy Award® winner Frances McDormand (“Fargo,” “North Country”) and Academy Award® nominee Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor,” HBO’s “Six Feet Under”) star in the four-part HBO Miniseries drama OLIVE KITTERIDGE, a film by Academy Award®-nominated director Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right,” “Laurel Canyon”), based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name with a teleplay by Emmy®-winner Jane Anderson (HBO’s “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom” and “Normal”).
The miniseries’ first two parts, “Pharmacy” and “Incoming Tide,” debut SUNDAY, NOV. 2 (9:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT), followed the next night by the debut of the final two parts, “A Different Road” and “Security,” on MONDAY, NOV. 3 (9:00-11:00 p.m.).
An HBO Miniseries presentation of a Playtone production in association with As Is, OLIVE KITTERIDGE is executive produced by Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Frances McDormand and Jane Anderson. Steven Shareshian co-executive produces.
OLIVE KITTERIDGE tells the poignantly sweet, acerbically funny and devastatingly tragic story of a seemingly placid New England town wrought with illicit affairs, crime and tragedy, told through the lens of Olive (Frances McDormand), whose wicked wit and harsh demeanor mask a warm but troubled heart and staunch moral center. Richard Jenkins portrays Olive’s husband, Henry.
The story, which spans 25 years, focuses on her relationships with her husband, Henry, the good-hearted and kindly town pharmacist; their son, Christopher, who resents his mother’s approach to parenting; and other members of their community.
The supporting cast features Golden Globe winner Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”) as Jack Kennison, a widower befriended by Olive; John Gallagher, Jr. (HBO’s “The Newsroom”) as Christopher, Olive and Henry’s son; Emmy® nominee Peter Mullan (“Top of the Lake”) as Jim O’Casey, a fellow teacher at Olive’s school; Rosemarie DeWitt (“Mad Men”) as Rachel Coulson, a shut-in who is one of Henry’s customers at the pharmacy; and Zoe Kazan (“Ruby Sparks”) as Denise Thibodeau, who works at the pharmacy.
OLIVE KITTERIDGE co-stars Broadway’s Cory Michael Smith (“Gotham”) as Kevin Coulson, Olive’s former student; Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad”) as Jerry McCarthy, Henry’s delivery boy; Ann Dowd (HBO’s “The Leftovers”) as Bonnie, a Kitteridge family friend; Brady Corbet (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) as Henry Thibodeau, Denise’s first husband; Audrey Marie Anderson (“The Unit”) as Ann, Christopher Kitteridge’s second wife; Patricia Kalember (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”) as Joyce, Christopher’s mother-in-law; and Maryann Urbano (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”) as Mrs. Kennison, Jack’s wife.
The behind-the-scenes team includes Emmy®-nominated director of photography Frederick Elmes, ASC (“Synecdoche, New York,” HBO’s “In the Gloaming”), production designer Julie Berghoff (“The Kids Are All Right”), editor Jeffrey M. Werner, ACE (“The Kids Are All Right”), costume designer Jenny Eagan (“True Grit”), ®-nominated composer Carter Burwell (“Where the Wild Things Are”) and Emmy®-winning casting director Laura Rosenthal, CSA (HBO’s “Mildred Pierce”).October 29, 2014 at 3:23 pm #338173
‘Olive Kitteridge’ miniseries review: A great Frances McDormand
Updated October 29, 2014 3:18 PM
By VERNE GAY
Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins star as Olive and Henry Kitteridge in the new HBO mini-series “Olive Kitteridge.”
Photo Credit: TNS
THE MINISERIES “Olive Kitteridge”
WHEN|WHERE Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Olive Kitteridge (Frances McDormand) is a junior high school teacher in the fictional mid-coast Maine town of Crosby (think Camden), married to town pharmacist Henry (Richard Jenkins). She’s a brittle, difficult character, but Henry loves her deeply. This is a portrait of their marriage over the years. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All Right”) and based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning 2008 novel of the same name.
MY SAY McDormand’s performance is one of those rare feats that tend to beggar efforts at finding exactly the right word of praise. Thus defeated, I’ll settle for “spectacular.”
Really, this is something to witness — a singularly great actress nailing every scene, every word until the artifice of “acting” evaporates altogether, and a living human being magically appears. That sort of alchemy doesn’t happen often, but it does here. McDormand will win an Emmy for this. Already, there’s no contest.
But what about the miniseries? Cholodenko’s direction is masterful, and so is the bleakly funny script by Jane Anderson, but they clearly have a vision that is both part of — and separate from — the source material. Those who esteem Strout’s novel may have quibbles (many characters in the novel make no appearance here), so that probably means “Kitteridge” should be approached on its own terms.
Those are considerable, but, like Ollie herself, “Kitteridge” is initially standoffish and difficult to engage with. There’s a Richard Linklater-ish pace and tone, of life unfolding slowly and sometimes formlessly. The plot points (such as they are) are essentially the plot points for all humanity: People live, people grow old, people die. But you will care, deeply. That’s a guarantee.
To really love this wonderful film may require having known — and perhaps loved — someone just like Ollie: flinty, tough, bruising, acerbic, smart and empathetic. She disdains the frailty of others because she disdains it in herself. She’s a broken person — permanently fractured by a long-ago tragedy — who constantly self-repairs until she can’t any longer. That’s her tragedy, while in the opening moments, she cocks a pistol, preparing to end her life.
Meanwhile, the backdrop is Maine with its endless skies and endless winters. Now and then, a snatch of Mahler floats by — Henry loves classical music, she hates it — just to intensify the refrigeration effect. When the glorious summers roll in, even Ollie thaws out a bit.
“Kitteridge” is full of other pleasures, including a couple of dozen pitch-perfect performances. Jenkins is superb as the small-town pharmacist with the big heart and boundless tolerance; John Gallagher Jr., as their entitled, spineless son, is as well. And even though he doesn’t arrive until close to the end, Bill Murray’s Jack Kennison catalyzes Ollie’s — and your — emotional journey, and it’s a powerful one, indeed.
BOTTOM LINE Great, really.
GRADE A+October 29, 2014 at 6:52 pm #338174
Let’s go get that GG that you don’t have, Miss McDormand!October 30, 2014 at 2:31 pm #338175
Let’s go get that GG that you don’t have, Miss McDormand!
THIS!October 30, 2014 at 3:35 pm #338176
Can’t wait to watch that when it comes on. Go get that Emmy, Frances! Since you already have an Oscar and a Tony, you could finally complete your Triple Crown 🙂October 30, 2014 at 3:42 pm #338177
The novel is so great. I have high expectations for this miniseries.October 31, 2014 at 3:09 am #338178
Flawless McDormand brings Olive Kitteridge to life
Robert Bianco, USA TODAY 3:54 p.m. EDT October 30, 2014
Frances McDormand, Devin McKenzie Druid, and Richard Jenkins star in HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge.” (Photo: Jojo Whilden, HBO)
Nice is overrated.
That’s one takeaway from Olive Kitteridge (HBO, Sunday and Monday at 9 ET/PT, * * * * out of four stars), a quietly captivating miniseries about a seldom-quiet woman. The other is that overrating France McDormand is impossible. With this full-bodied, honestly sympathetic portrait of the difficult, demanding, and ultimately admirable Olive, she reaffirms her status as one of the great actors of our age—one who can lift your spirits, break your heart, and keep you riveted through all four hours of the best movie or miniseries HBO has produced since 2010’s Temple Grandin.
With her every scene in this two-part film, beautifully directed by Lisa Cholodenko and ingeniously constructed by Jane Anderson out of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short stories, McDormand shows us another facet of Olive, until we’re left with a portrait of a woman in full. The more you see of her, the more you want to see, in a film that—unlike so many on TV these days—seems precisely as long as it should be, without a moment wasted or another moment needed.
In a medium still drawn to easily “likable” characters, Olive isn’t. A flinty Maine math teacher with a sharp wit and no social graces, Olive is smarter than most everyone around her, and yet not smart enough to see, or stop, the damage she does to those she loves. What her loved ones most often get is a taskmaster who believes in stating facts as she sees them; whose go-to bit of advice is “snap out of it” and go-to insult is “sap.”
That last one is often aimed at her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins), a kind man whose kindness Olive finds smothering. We watch them battle and reconcile over a quarter of a century, and it’s a tribute to both McDormand and Jenkins that at the end, we’re not sure who had the better side in the argument.
To an extent, the same can be said for Olive and her son Christopher (Devin Druid as a teenager, The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr. as an adult). Olive berates him and pushes him—and pushes him away, out of fear that he will inherit the depression that caused her father to kill himself. And yet she clearly loves him, so much so that he’s one of the few people who can shake her resolve or make her cry.
So we follow Olive as she ages from 45 to 70, through moments when she is not as kind as she should be, and moments when she is better, and more astute, than people expect her to be. Anger and fear sometimes get the better of her, but she never wallows, and she never loses her mordant wit. Who else but Olive, when asked by a grieving widower (Bill Murray, brilliant in a small but vital role) for a reason to get up in the morning, would answer “Don’t have a clue. I’m waiting for the dog to die so I can shoot myself.”
You have to love a woman like that, and you certainly have to love McDormand, an actor in her prime with an Oscar and Tony already to her credit. Don’t be shocked if, come September, she adds an Emmy to that list.
And that would be very nice, indeed.October 31, 2014 at 11:33 am #338179
As I said before she’s wining everything.November 1, 2014 at 9:20 am #338180
Venice Film Review: “Olive Kitteridge”
September 1, 2014 | 08:25 AM PT
Frances McDormand shines in this finely crafted HBO
adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s book.
Chief International Film Critic
“Ollie” to her husband and “Mrs. K” to the students in her middle-school
mathematics class, and her daughter-in-law insists on calling her “Mom.” But
audiences will forever know this unforgettable, irascible woman as “Olive
Kitteridge,” thanks to the remarkably complex portrayal Frances McDormand
delivers over the course of a four-hour HBO miniseries she optioned and
developed herself, bringing aboard her “Laurel Canyon” helmer, Lisa Cholodenko,
to direct. Even more so than 2011’s “Mildred Pierce,” this finely crafted,
wonderfully cast meller—which HBO will air in November—suggests a promising new
life for the women’s-picture genre on nets willing to let such stories breathe.
Elizabeth Strout wrote “Olive Kitteridge” not as a
traditional novel, but rather as a collection of 13 short stories—a portrait of
small-town Crosby, Maine, with its minor crises and major hypocrisies,
interlinked by the presence (sometimes peripheral) of Olive’s character. Such a
format makes it all but impossible to reduce the Pulitzer-winning book’s
nonlinear quarter-century span to an efficient two-hour narrative. Besides, the
feature format is better suited to heroes with clearly defined goals and a
fixed timeframe in which to achieve them, whereas “Olive Kitteridge” has more
existential concerns on its mind. That may lead to viewer attrition, as auds
tune in for the first hour but may not be necessarily hooked to the end, though
each successive episode takes those who remain deeper into the family’s private
In the book’s best chapter, which screenwriter Jane
Anderson (“The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio”) tucks into the second
installment, Kevin Coulson (Cory Michael Smith) returns to Crosby, with a
shotgun. It has been some years since his mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) killed
herself, and now he plans to take his own life, working out the logistics in
his head when Olive taps on his car window and invites herself in to sit down
beside him. Speaking to Olive, whom he imagines for a split second as an
elephant, the young man is reminded of lines from a John Berryman poem: “Save
us from shotguns & fathers’ suicides . . . Mercy!
. . . do not pull the trigger or all my life I’ll suffer from your anger.”
Thematically speaking, shotguns and fathers’ suicides
loom heavy over much of the miniseries, which tends to view its “Our Town”-like
cross-section of Crosby residents in generational terms, where children are
constantly dealing with their parents’ baggage, and where middle-school
teachers appear to have relatively little impact on the lives of their
students. But in this scene, Olive manages to get through to Kevin, revealing
to him that her father shot himself, too. Depression may or may not run in
Olive’s family. She certainly seems to have passed it on to her son,
Christopher (“The Newsroom’s” John Gallagher, Jr.), who grows up resenting his
mom, and in the teleplay’s opening scene, we see Olive, widowed and unhappy at
the end of her life, going for a picnic in the woods where, instead of bringing
food, she unpacks a revolver.
Nearly three-and-a-half hours pass before Anderson brings
the narrative back around to this suicidal excursion, which lends a strange air
of tragic suspense to the Kitteridges’ unhurried and generally upbeat
existence. For much of the mini, Olive actually appears to be a secondary
character in her own life, sort of the surly opposite of a busybody—a woman
who’s always present, but seldom wants to engage with other people’s troubles.
McDormand shines when she’s onscreen but never tries to upstage, even when delivering
the best lines, having humbly seen something of herself in a character that,
according to Strout’s description, “probably looks like a fat, dozing seal
wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage.”
Meanwhile, our sympathies naturally gravitate to her
doting husband, Henry. With minimal fuss and maximum heart, Richard Jenkins
makes the most of this substantive role, playing a simple and instinctively
tender soul who runs the local pharmacy and who, within the first half-hour,
tries in vain to save the lives of two customers.
Though it hails from the network responsible for “The
Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones,” it’s strange to think that “Olive Kitteridge”
would boast a body count. Strout’s novel deals not in whackings, but in
“wicky-wacky” family intrigue. Still, death is as much a part of life as
anything, and so, amid the marriages and divorces, love affairs and arguments,
these episodes feature hunting accidents and car wrecks, a woman falling off a
cliff, an armed stickup, the hovering threat of suicide, and the deaths of one
dog and one cat, handled with varying degrees of comedy and pathos.
In taming the book’s scattered timeline, Anderson has
reordered everything more or less chronologically (with room for a few
flashbacks). We see Henry nursing an innocent crush on Denise (Zoe Kazan), a
young woman who comes to work at his pharmacy, and we discover gradually that
despite his unconditional love for Olive, his wife’s heart belongs to another
man (Peter Mullan). The miniseries even sticks around long enough for Olive to
meet another man, a “rich old flubdub” named Jack Kennison (Bill Murray, making
a big impression with a small role), whose own political intolerance reveals
Olive to be less set in her ways than we may have thought.
Anderson peppers her screenplay with colorful small-town
argot, though McDormand goes easy on the Maine accent, as if to distinguish
Olive from Marge Gunderson. Cholodenko is careful to place the comedic focus on
how Olive and her circle think, rather than the way they talk, embracing the
time the miniseries format affords to observe seemingly mundane tasks. The
film’s most revealing character scene is one McDormand plays almost entirely
solo, sneaking away from her son’s wedding reception to take a nap upstairs.
Olive is not what we might conventionally refer to as a
good person, and it’s reasonable to question how many people might show up at
her funeral—just as it’s fair to ask, even before she goes off into the woods
with her gun, whether her son might already be suffering from his mother’s
anger. Olive can be cruel and tactless, and though her “candor” (as neighbor
Louise Larkin calls it) is always good for a laugh, there’s something uncouth
in the way she scolds other people’s children or goes about prepping her baked
potato while everyone else stops to listen to her husband’s wedding toast.
As picturesque as the telepic’s Maine locations can be,
Cholodenko doesn’t linger long outdoors, except to watch Olive fussing among
her flowerbeds—one of those bits of business, like sorting pills at the
pharmacy or scrubbing the fridge, that reframe human accomplishment in
day-to-day terms. Olive may not be a fancy cook, but she puts food on the table
every night, only to see her son grow up to complain about his childhood. In
never condescending toward those who take pride in such pursuits as
cross-stitching and woodcarving, the helmer aims to be true to Strout’s prose,
which celebrates traditional family values even as it reveals there to be no
such thing. “Olive Kitteridge” captures a flavor of American life experienced
by many, but chronicled by few, where even after-dinner burps—or, in one scene,
a case of explosive diarrhea—are details worth noting.
Slightly better off than they were in the book, the
Kitteridges live in an enviable home overlooking the ocean, too preoccupied
with domestic concerns most days to take in the view. This largely indoor focus
tends to give things a somewhat theatrical feel, heightened by the way every
home furnishing, costume and prop appears to have been picked by a stage
designer, rather than by Olive herself. (Some of the period scenes get a little
carried away with the patterns, though her home-sewn dress is a scene stealer.)
Musically, an aging barroom singer (Martha Wainwright)
provides continuity right up to the retirement home, and Henry’s taste in
classical radio broadcasts never changes. But it’s Carter Burwell who sets the
tone with one of those rich scores of his that invites personal reflection
without spelling out exactly how we should feel. As Olive notes, the men in her
family “don’t understand subtext,” though McDormand and her collaborators are
counting on the fact that audiences do.
Venice Film Review: “Olive Kitteridge”
Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (noncompeting), Aug. 31,
2014. Running time: 232 MIN.
An HBO Miniseries presentation of a Playtone production,
in association with As Is. Produced by David Coatsworth. Executive producers,
Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Frances McDormand, Jane Anderson. Co-executive
producer, Steven Shareshian.
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Teleplay, Jane Anderson,
based on the novel by Elizabeth Strout. Camera (color), Frederick Elmes;
editor, Jeffrey M. Werner; music, Carter Burwell; music supervisor, Deva
Anderson; production designer, Julie Berghoff; art director, Colin de Rouin;
set decorator, Sophie Neudorfer; costume designer, Jenny Eagan; sound (Dolby
Digital), Jay Meagher; supervising sound editor/designer, Dave McMoyler;
special effects coordinator, Michael Ricci; visual effects supervisors, Bryan
Godwin, Jane Sharvina; visual effects, Shade VFX, Encore VFX; assistant
director, Jesse Nye; casting, Laura Rosenthal.
Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Audrey Marie Anderson,
Brady Corbet, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ann Dowd, John Gallagher, Jr., Zoe Kazan, Donna
Mitchell, Peter Mullan, Bill Murray, Jesse Plemons, Cory Michael Smith, Martha
Wainwright.November 1, 2014 at 9:30 am #338181
The long and short of Frances McDormand in HBO’s “Olive Kitteridge”
performances, but perhaps the wrong length for adapting Elizabeth Strout’s book.
by Alan Sepinwall
@Sepinwall | Wednesday, Oct 29, 2014 1:00 PM
The last time HBO turned a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel
set in Maine into a miniseries, it was 2005’s “Empire Falls,” which
boasted a star-studded cast but was exactly the wrong length at four hours: too
short to properly tell all of the books’ stories and give the audience the
necessary feeling of living among these characters, and much too long for the
thin slice the filmmakers were able to carve out of the book.
HBO’s new miniseries “Olive Kitteridge” (it
debuts Sunday night at 9) is also adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel
set in Maine, and also clocks in at four hours. And though I haven’t read the
Elizabeth Strout book on which it’s based, it certainly feels like the same
mistake has been made about its length.
Directed by Lisa Cholodenko (“The Kids Are All
Right”) and written by HBO movie veteran Jane Anderson
(“Normal,” “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas
Cheerleader-Murdering Mom”), the miniseries presents vignettes over 25
years in the life of Olive (Frances McDormand), an unyielding Yankee who holds
her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins), her son Christopher (played by Devin
McKenzie Druid as a kid and John Gallagher Jr. as an adult), and the world at
large to a very high standard, and has no problem telling people in the bluntest
possible terms how they’ve failed to live up to that standard. (Christopher
grows up to become a doctor, but she dismisses his accomplishments:
“You’re a podiatrist; it doesn’t count.”) She lacks the patience for
displays of sentiment—when Henry acts dismayed that she’s throwing out a
Valentine’s Day card that he just gave her, she says, “I read it”—and
good manners are what she expects from other people, and not necessarily from
At one point, Christopher understandably objects to how
she treats him, and Olive replies with a “Poor you” that sounds very
much like it came from the mouth of the worst HBO mother of them all. Tony
Soprano once recalled the way his mother treated his father, and marvels that
“she wore him down to a nub.” Watching “Olive Kitteridge,”
viewers may feel like Henry is suffering the same fate in real time right in
front of them.
As Christopher notes, Olive tends to behave more warmly
towards people outside her immediate family—a trait she and her husband (who is
otherwise her temperamental opposite) share. Olive looks out for troubled kids
in school and is attracted to English teacher Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan from
“Top of the Lake”), while Henry has an almost pathological need to
rescue the various mousey women who cross his path. (The most prominent, and
appealing, of these is pharmacy assistant Denise, played by Zoe Kazan.) The
Kitteridge union is simultaneously broken and functional: Olive and Henry don’t
seem to belong together, but one of the best things the miniseries does is to
illustrate the ways in which they do love and take comfort in each other,
despite how irritating it is for each to be around the other day after day,
year after year.
Along the way, we get glimpses of the other characters
who made up the 13 interlocking tales of Strout’s book—Rosemarie DeWitt as a
mentally ill pharmacy customer, Cory Michael Smith (the would-be Riddler on
“Gotham”) as the grown-up son who inherited her condition, Libby
Winters as Christopher’s bride-to-be—but they’re not around long enough to make
much of an impact, even as it’s clear in each case that there’s much more of
their stories to be told than the miniseries has room for.
And as great as both McDormand and Jenkins are in the
lead roles (both are early Emmy frontrunners), their story ultimately feels too
repetitive—the miniseries plays as a collection of anecdotes designed to make
the same point over and over and over again—to justify the running time. After
a while, one begins to feel trapped in the Kitteridge marriage right along with
them; that may be exactly what Cholodenko and Anderson were going for, but
unlike Olive and Henry, I had the ability to (frequently) put their
relationship on pause to find something less suffocating to enjoy. Things liven
up in the final hour, thanks to Bill Murray as a wealthy neighbor whom Olive
gets to know late in life, but it’s a mark of how dour the majority of the
project is that Murray feels like a ray of sunshine even underplaying a
So much of Olive’s story is about repetition: the routine
of a marriage in good times and bad, the way that certain character traits—or
illnesses—can be passed from generation to generation. On that level, the
structure makes sense, but the mini becomes such a slog to get through—especially
with everyone outside the marriage (who could have provided some respite from
it) reduced to cameos—that the destination isn’t worth the long and difficult
I like the idea of HBO as a place where serious novels
can be adapted with top talent, and in a relatively faithful fashion that
doesn’t have to pander to box office in the way a feature film would. But the
next time the channel’s execs get their hands on a sprawling novel and
designate it for a four-hour treatment, they should think serious about either
doubling that time or cutting it in half.
November 1, 2014 at 8:00 pm #338182
Weekend Review: HBO’s Olive Kitteridge
Oct 31, 2014 09:48 AM ET
by Matt Roush
To know Olive Kitteridge is not easy. Many would likely argue it’s not worth the risk of being exposed to her harsh, judgmental New Englander’s scorn. Suffer fools gladly? Not this curmudgeonly math teacher who, when her husband insists she’s not depressed, snaps back, “Yes, I am. Happy to have it. Comes with being smart.” Prompting her long-suffering son to wonder, “Is that why you’re so mean all the time?”
And yet, in HBO’s oddly moving and melancholy-shrouded two-night adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning novel Olive Kitteridge (Sunday-Monday, 9/8c), a remarkable Frances McDormand makes Olive a fascinating, tragicomic study in human stubbornness, contrariness, and contradiction. Suspicious of anyone’s happiness, let alone her own, she is to be feared, but also maybe pitied—though heaven help you if you show even a trace of patronizing compassion.
Director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) and Emmy-winning writer Jane Anderson (The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom) take their time, over four engrossing episodic hours, to create a full, believable world around Olive. It’s like an astringent Our Town in a coastal Maine hamlet, viewed through a misanthrope’s prism. [Thinking back over HBO’s recent miniseries history, I wish they’d given this project six hours and cut the plodding Mildred Pierce back to four, if that.]
McDormand is wondrous, matched by a splendid supporting cast. As Olive’s kindly pharmacist husband, Six Feet Under‘s Richard Jenkins is heartbreakingly affecting, especially when he dotes on a naïve employee (touching Zoe Kazan) whom Olive considers a pathetic mouse, and The Newsroom‘s John Gallagher Jr. scores as her estranged son. They’re Olive’s greatest victims, often neglected while she nurtures her garden and tends to the town’s most damaged souls (including Rosemarie DeWitt and Gotham‘s Cory Michael Smith in haunting cameos).
Toward the end, Bill Murray shines as a widower who attempts to befriend the similarly lonely Olive. Anyone expecting a traditional sentimental ending will be, in Olive’s words, “in for one big fat disappointment.” Which Olive Kitteridge, for all of its strange and sad prickliness, is anything but.November 1, 2014 at 8:07 pm #338183
Frances McDormand in Olive Kitteridge. [Photo: Jojo Whilden]
by Chuck Bowen ON October 29, 2014
Based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge is an essentially optimistic portrait of disappointment, which the miniseries shows to be reliable proof that a person is alive and open and feeling. The titular character, a schoolteacher, mother, and notorious curmudgeon played by Frances McDormand, even goes so far as to say that depression is a sign of intelligence, implying that only the dullards are closed off to the disease’s challenging circuitry. These sentiments, delivered matter-of-factly, devoid of any shred of self-pity or existential rootlessness, are indicative of Olive Kitteridge‘s magnificent, cleansing power; it’s an honest tearjerker that treats its characters with respect, according them a great sense of wounded, tattered dignity.
Olive Kitteridge spans 25 years, detailing a family’s life in a small coastal Maine town. In the prologue, we see Olive as an elderly woman walking through a patch of woods with a picnic basket. She sets the basket on the ground and pulls out a revolver. We’re then taken back to when she and her pharmacist husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins), were middle-aged and raising their son, Christopher (Devin Druid), making their way as a stable, respected middle-class family of Maine lifers. It’s clear early on that Olive is one of those teachers one despises as a child, but grows to remember fondly, when it’s retrospectively obvious that she had the empathy and temerity to regard her students as adults. When a student’s mother arrives early to pick him up, she insists he serves out the last 20 minutes of his detention, and she mercilessly takes Henry and Christopher to task for their shortcomings, which often boil down to a sentimental hero complex in the former, and a failure of empathy in the latter.
What McDormand allows us to see, in an extraordinary performance, is that Olive’s actions are colored by a fundamental sense of decency; for her, mediocrity (derived from self-satisfaction) is a moral affront, and for all her aggressiveness, she’s quick to shrewdly, quietly bolster those at the edge of ruin. But McDormand doesn’t soften Olive by telegraphing that decency; she displays the same tough sense of respect for her character that Olive extends to her often-begrudging friends and family. What Jenkins allows us to see, in a performance that’s equally beautiful, is that Henry’s a mild, good man who knows he’s lucked into a woman with a fiery temperament that would normally inspire her to look elsewhere; his relationship with Olive is the dance of his life, and he’s grateful for it even when he hates her.
The supporting actors are also astonishingly strong, and make such an intense impression so quickly that they affirm the bittersweet feeling of time moving on—particularly the romantic partners that Olive and Henry almost have in spite, or perhaps because of, their fraught marriage: an alcoholic colleague (Peter Mullan) and Denise (Zoe Kazan), a young, dim woman whom Henry hires at the pharmacy, respectively. It’s not difficult to see what each person brings to Olive and Henry that they fail to give one another. Olive’s colleague is sexily disenfranchised (he’s an English teacher, what else could he be?), resolutely different from Henry’s eagerness to please, while Denise grants Henry the kind of utter devotion and hero worship that’s alien to Olive.
Director Lisa Cholodenko establishes a unified rapport between her actors that often eludes huge star or character-actor-studded vehicles. There’s a palpable sense of the history—of slights, and shared secrets—that weighs on these characters, spurring their behavior; the miniseries has an unusually novelistic sense of texture and density, reminiscent, not just of Sprout, but of the work of Richard Russo. (Spoilers herein.) When Henry invites Denise over for dinner after her husband is killed in a hunting accident, she refuses to eat, and Henry begins to feed her like a child. Olive and Christopher, on the opposite sides of a kitchen table that might as well be in another dimension, are understandably embarrassed and appalled at the desperate intimacy they’re witnessing. But Cholodenko doesn’t play favorites, which is to say that one’s empathy is directed, equally, toward everyone. It’s an X-ray scene: We appear to be able to look through everyone at once, understanding Henry and Denise’s loneliness while appreciating Olive and Christopher’s resentment, while also appreciating how both emotional registers feed and perpetuate one another at once.
Cholodenko and screenwriter Jane Anderson also have the talent, and the patience, for setting up emotional beats that will pay off an hour or two later, affirming the notion of regret as an unruly ocean. Kevin (Cory Michael Smith), the grown-up child of a woman who committed suicide (Rosemarie DeWitt), sits at a bar while a lounge singer (Martha Wainwright) performs poignant, maudlin tunes at the piano; he’s recently planned to kill himself, put off only by a chance encounter with Olive. At the other side of the bar, Christopher, played by John Gallagher as an adult, is getting married. It’s one of those great, heavy, evocative recreations of a tragically common social situation: witnessing (what is perceived to be) someone else’s defining happiness, which forces one to feel more detached and aloof from life than ever before, stuck forever as a bystander to existence. Kevin sips a drink, lost, sitting in a chair that once held, years ago, Olive’s sexy colleague before he was killed in a drunken car accident that’s rumored to have been intentional. And then he notices a napkin the teacher once wrote on, and it triggers a memory in which the man extended to Kevin a kindness. Few movies or series have ever captured the alienating fog and the piercing, cyclical hopelessness of depression with such vividness and subtlety, and there are a dozen scenes in Olive Kitteridge that equal it.
Like all humanist art, Olive Kitteridge doesn’t allow the viewer to get too smug or confident in their assessment of something. There’s an ongoing joy of discovery, a sense of things always changing, and sadness in knowing that only a precious little can ever be truly discerned about someone; everyone lives in their private realms, unknowable. Christopher, for instance, appears to be a hopelessly insincere and callow yuppie when we first meet him as an adult through Kevin’s eyes, but later we realize he’s as lost as anyone else in the film, particularly because of his understandable resentment of Olive, who Christopher knows favored and respected Kevin. This is ultimately why Olive Kitteridge is so overwhelmingly moving: It shows that no one knows anything, while allowing for the hope that one might, at last, come to know just a little something that might bring them in closer to the fold of the fellow members of their species. To paraphrase Olive, it creates a strange, painful world that we, nevertheless, do not wish to leave.
Cast: Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan, Devin Druid, John Gallagher Jr., Rosemarie DeWitt, Bill Murray, Peter Mullan, Cory Michael Smith, Martha Wainwright, Brady Corbet, Audrey Marie Anderson Airtime: HBO, Check local listings.November 2, 2014 at 7:57 am #338184
Four episodes airing over two days (and the first being Sunday of all days)? I am going to be so behind so fast.November 2, 2014 at 2:21 pm #338185
Episodes Titles: “Pharmacy”; ‘Incoming Tide”
Synopsis: Henry Kitteridge hires a new assistant at his pharmacy; Olive and a fellow teacher give a shy student a ride home; Kevin returns to Maine on a dark mission; Olive invites Kevin to stay with her.