The biggest positive surprise at Venice is probably Lisa
Cholodenko’s HBO miniseries, “Olive Kitteridge.” Starring those national
treasures Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins as the title character and her
pharmicist husband, Henry, the four-part series travels through their lives
over some 25 years.
In today’s press conference, McDormand said that she’d been
playing supportive roles to male characters for her entire career and “it feels
like I’ve been working for 35 years to set up this part.” And it does feel like
she was meant to play this small-town Maine teacher who, as McDormand says, “not
everyone likes but no one can ignore.”
This is to put it mildly: Olive Kitteridge is brusque,
sharp, acerbic, unforgiving, ungenerous, rude, mean, and downright unhappy much
of the time – most of all with those close to her – Henry and their son, Christopher
(John Gallagher, Jr). She’s also brilliantly funny, and says and does things
most of us wish we had the guts to. Late in the series she admits that she
married the nicest man in the world and he married a beast, but they managed to
stay together, somehow.
McDormand, who acquired the rights to Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and also serves as hands-on executive producer,
said that she has been married for 32 years to the same man, and Jenkins 45
years to the same woman. They believe in marriage, and this clearly plays a
role in their wanting to make this particular film, which works its way through
various strains well known to most long marriages.
This is not an easy film – there’s a lot of death,
depression and other difficulties dealt with – and yet it’s always a deep
pleasure to watch. It doesn’t hurt that Bill Murray turns up at one of its
darker, slower moments, and brings a whole new peas-in-a-pod chemistry to
McDormand’s Olive. The extensive supporting cast is uniformly good, notably Zoe
Kazan as the over-amped mouse who works for – and affects – Henry, and Peter Mullan as Olive’s counterpart, the
alcoholic English teacher Jim O’Casey. Gallagher has his moments, too,
particularly as his relationship with Olive begins to fray. Several small roles
are also memorable, especially Cory Michael Smith as an ex-student suffering
from psychosis, beautifully and frighteningly illustrated by Cholodenko.
All credit to this talented director, with whom McDormand
worked in 2002’s “Laurel Canyon” and here weaves a wonderful tapestry, simultaneously
quite normal and yet weird. It’s fitting, then, that one-time David Lynch
cohort Frederick Elmes is behind the evocative camera work. Jane Anderson’s
adapted script is well-paced, the dialogue dynamic. In the end, though, it’s
McDormand’s baby. It was her vision, and despite so many good roles in the
past, and no doubt in the future, this may well be the one she’s remembered
for. Tonight she received the Persol Visionary Talent Award in Venice,
accepting graciously and briefly in Italian, then getting almost-too-quickly
off the stage to rejoin Cholodenko, Jenkins and real-life nice husband, Joel
Coen, in the audience. That’s so Olive, I found myself thinking.
“Olive Kitteridge” airs on HBO on November 2 and 3.