So that’s that then — the best film at the Venice Film Festival in terms of providing a great central female role (which have been in shocking short supply, at least in the selection we’ve seen so far) is not a film at all. It’s the subtle, sublime Lisa Cholodenko-directed 4-hour HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge,” and the performance in question come from Frances McDormand, who achieves such a perfect, uncompromised synthesis with the title character that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else ever answering to the name. Quite apart from the show itself, which is sensitively directed by Cholodenko, cleverly written by Jane Anderson, beautifully shot by DP Frederick Elmes and immaculately performed across its large ensemble, especially the incredible Richard Jenkins, the meta narrative of seeing one of our greatest working actresses unite with such an unusual and worthwhile role is immensely satisfying all by itself. “Olive Kitteridge” deserves Frances McDormand, and Frances McDormand deserves “Olive Kitteridge.”
It’s easy to see why the adaptation of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel by Elizabeth Strout might have been such a passion project for McDormand, who is also an executive producer and thus purchased the rights to the book and willed the show into being. Unfolding in four different time periods in Olive’s life, each later than the last (the ageing process is very well achieved —mostly through performance— as is the subtle, unshowy period detailing for each era), the show builds to one of the most complex portraits of a contradictory, impossible woman in recent memory. Ollie is a character who in any other show, or indeed in real life, would be a marginal presence: the crazy, mean old lady who frightens neighborhood kids and who makes everyone feel momentarily uncomfortable as she passes through. But “Olive Kitteridge” pulls the mean lady out of the background and makes her the focus of our steady attention, and it’s a revelation. Olive is not a good person, not a bad person, and not a woman-whose-irascible-exterior-deep-down-hides-a-heart-of-gold. She can be monstrous, and monstrously wrong-headed, but is an individual who makes the world different just by existing. And in embracing Ollie’s willfulness and utter contempt for almost everyone she meets, often including her son and her husband, the show manages to be an extraordinarily rare bird: a family drama absent one single shred of sentimentality or manufactured pathos.
In part one, titled “Pharmacy,” we first meet Olive, a schoolteacher who is married to a goodhearted pharmacist Henry (Jenkins) in a small New England seaside town. They have a young son, Christopher, but both Olive and Henry have yens for others. For Olive, it’s a fellow teacher played by the great Peter Mullan, and with Henry, it’s the sweet young co-worker Denise (a terrific Zoe Kazan). Part Two opens some years later as Christopher (John Gallagher Jr.) is about to be married, and an ex-classmate returns to town. Part Three is still later and features a brilliant and unexpectedly tense scene during a hospital hold-up, and Part Four visits Olive as she becomes older and more isolated than ever, and features the late, welcome addition of Bill Murray’s character, a local widower. The role of Jack Kennison gives Murray a small but crucial component that seems miraculously tailored for him. Throughout McDormand takes your breath away, Jenkins will break your heart and the rest of the cast (Brady Corbet, Ann Dowd, Martha Wainwright, Ann Dowd, Jesse Plemons, Cory Michael Smith and Rosemarie deWitt, among others) are all given a chance to shine, and all rise to the occasion.
If we have one niggle (in fact it’s more of a concern for the show’s reception), it’s that the first episode is definitely the slowest of the four and we very much hope that, in the absence of any cliffhangers or other stock TV tactics, viewers will be pulled in enough to come back for more. Because as much as each episode works as a stand-alone hour of enriching TV, the show’s cumulative power becomes more intense as you go, and by the fourth, this family may feel more real to you than your own. In that light, the decision to air the series over two nights only seems like definitely the right way to go.
Most impressively, this is a show that delivers one of the most clear-eyed, least judgmental and least overwrought meditations on depression that we’ve ever seen. The disease almost seems to be a legacy in this little corner of the world, a trait that runs in the small community the way blue eyes might run in a family, but while the subject is treated with a respect it seldom gets, it’s done so wittily and with such compassion and wisdom that the show itself is never depressing. It’s not the visceral whodunnit or controversial biopic that the words "HBO miniseries" might conjure, but “Olive Kitteridge” is an absorbing, deeply intelligent drama that absolutely earns every emotion it elicits. And it performs a valuable service too in making Ollie so flesh-and-blood real that we can practically hear her heart beat: we all need reminding from time to time just how amazing difficult people can be. [A-]