Olive Kitteridge: Til Death Do Us Part

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A SIMPLE LIFE.

olivekitteridgeSix years ago, Frances McDormand read “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout. This was at a time when the actress had watched The Wire (2002-2008) and realized how a sprawling story could be told in a television format. In McDormand’s mind, “Olive Kitteridge” could not be made as a movie. “Female stories are more circular, protracted and complex and need to be told in a different format”, as she told the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview. McDormand is a strong feminist, and I admire her for that, even though I can’t see why stories about women would need the miniseries format in particular.

However, HBO had previously produced another miniseries helmed by an indie director, Mildred Pierce (2011), so this became a perfect fit for Lisa Cholodenko.

Olive and Henry Kitteridge (McDormand, Richard Jenkins) live in the small town of Crosby, Maine. When we first meet them, Olive works as a teacher and Henry runs the local pharmacy. They have a 13-year old son, Christopher. At first sight, the Kitteridges look like an odd couple. Henry could very well be the sweetest man in town and he’s paying particular attention to a vulnerable girl (Zoe Kazan) who’s just started working at the pharmacy. Olive seems to put everyone off; her stern demeanor makes her an unpopular teacher and Christopher finds it very difficult to connect with her. Olive has a fling with a fellow teacher (Peter Mullan) who has a drinking problem…

Down-to-earth and universal
There are many ingredients here that make this one of the best television experiences of 2014. As in the director’s most successful film to date, The Kids Are All Right (2010), the story of Olive Kitteridge is down-to-earth and universal. We follow the Kitteridges through 25 years, give or take, from the challenging years of their relationship when they’re looking elsewhere for thrills and companionship in the shape of Kazan and Mullan’s characters to the later years when life is changing and they’re left with the consequences of earlier actions and the sad facts of aging.

There is an episodic feel to it, inevitably, but Cholodenko and writer Jane Anderson keep a firm grip on the overarching themes. A friend of mine described the Kitteridges’ marriage as “unhappy”, but that’s simplifying it. Realistic is a better word; as the full story shows, there are ups and downs between them and we also get a sense of what it is that binds them, a deeper understanding and appreciation of the differences that somehow fill the needs of the other. There is a lot of darkness and angst throughout the story, some of it related to the characters and their disposition, some of it to mental illness, as in a memorable sequence where Olive is talking to a former student who has inherited his mother’s depression, contemplates suicide and keeps hallucinating (which includes seeing Olive turn into an elephant!). Similar problems tormented Olive’s father and are showing up in Olive herself, as well as Christopher – but is it really depression or merely the facts of life?

Intriguing, and vividly brought to life, with beautifully melancholy music by Carter Burwell and windy, autumnal Massachusetts cinematography by Frederick Elmes.

As an actors’ showpiece, this is a formidable achievement. Jenkins and McDormand are both brilliant, delivering layered performances that reveal a lot about their characters, even in moments that aren’t as intense as a certain crisis that appears midway through. There’s honesty and a directness in McDormand that shines through in her characters, and in the case of Olive it helps us understand and accept this New Englander more easily.

Olive Kitteridge 2014-U.S. Made for TV. 254 min. Color. Produced by David Coatsworth. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Teleplay: Jane Anderson. Novel: Elizabeth Strout. Cinematography: Frederick Elmes. Music: Carter Burwell. Cast: Frances McDormand (Olive Kitteridge), Richard Jenkins (Henry Kitteridge), Bill Murray (Jack Kennison), John Gallagher, Jr., Zoe Kazan, Peter Mullan… Martha Wainwright.

Trivia: Originally shown in four episodes. Co-executive produced by McDormand and Tom Hanks.

Emmys: Outstanding Limited Series, Directing, Writing, Actor (Jenkins), Actress (McDormand), Supporting Actor (Murray).

Last word: “It was one of the best times I’ve ever had as an actor. Also because I’ve made a career of playing small supporting roles, mostly to male protagonists, and one of the reasons I thought I was perfect casting, from a producing standpoint, for Olive was that she is, too. In the short stories and in her family’s life, she is a supporting character. She’s a supporting character that should be a leading lady. And that was always my situation as a supporting actor in film. I never needed a break [from the character], are you kidding?” (McDormand, NPR)

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