“True Detective” may have inaugurated a new form of televisual fiction where storytelling is at the service of existential elaboration — a bolder conception of seriality where narrative is still king but meditative cogitation is queen. Lisa Cholodenko’s adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning book by Elizabeth Strout, “Olive Kitteridge” represents an interesting step in this direction, and one made, for once, by a woman telling the story of another woman.
The woman in question is the titular Olive Kitteridge (Francis McDormand), a middle-aged school teacher living in rural Maine with her husband and local pharmacist Henry (Richard Jenkins), and their son Christopher. As idyllic and ostensibly perfect as the setting might be, there are hidden undercurrents rippling its surface. Like a less virulent “Twin Peaks,” there is a tangible yet unfathomable dark presence roaming the streets and lives of the fictional village in Maine where the story takes place over the course of 25 bittersweet years.
The four-parts miniseries opens with Olive loading a gun presumably aimed at her own temple, then fades to a quarter of a century before, when pharmacies looked more like bakeries than supermarkets, but life was no less pained by the same psychological complications associated with rampant modernization.
As a couple, Olive and Henry seem to confirm that theory that opposites attract — bitter and sarcastic the former, loving and kind the latter — but they also represent the other side of love, the one made of compromises and silent agreements. Though every excess of emotional enthusiasm is promptly curbed by Olive’s sternness and occasional dark humor, her relationship with Henry still betrays a felt sense of loving companionship. More problematic is her relationship with her son Christopher, an amenable kid torn between a giving father and an almost intractable mother.
However exacting and unfond of sentimental sweet-talk she might be, Olive is occasionally caught revealing her kinder side, almost by accident. The whole world seems to get under her skin — something is eating her inside, as if she was constantly trying to suppress a muted scream always on the verge to come out.
As far as female characters go, the one interpreted by Francis McDormand is a powerful and complex one, who defies stereotypes but most importantly is not afraid to face her own weaknesses. She is a “witch” angry with the world, and probably with herself as well — a woman seeking strength and balance in the most difficult chapter of her life.
Existential dilemmas, conflicting roles and the looming shadow of societal impositions are not an exclusive prerogative of Olive’s inner life — instead, they’re more like a feature of the human condition at large. Even Henry’s upright kindness is not enough when confronted by the dainty breeze of the younger, unprepared life which comes through the front door of his pharmacy in the form of Denise Thibodeau (Zoe Kazan), his assistant.
Loving temptations are not alone on the list of obstacles confronting characters — depression, which runs in Olive’s family, is a ghost that she is not alone in dealing with. The whole town, which transcends its geo-fictional location and takes on a wider allegorical significance, is nothing but the stage of life with its painful complications, unflattering imperfections and very human frailties. Every road taken is another left unexplored, every choice made is a different option not considered; no single decision or mishap in life come without its specular “what if.”
Yet the morose qualities of “Olive Kitteridge,” both the mini-series and the character, are diluted with a generous dose of ironic counterpoints, essential to the humoral balance of Chodolenko’s tele-drama as they are in life. The final sensation one gets is not of dreary resignation, but a sort of caustic reconciliation with the fact that fulfillment apparently was not in Mother Nature’s plans, and that happiness is fleeting yet by no means unworthy of our anguishing longing.
The story is almost whispered, embracingly told in a placid yet grandiose tone. HBO’s latest effort has in fact a strangely hypnotic quality to it, highly reminiscent of the melancholic ineluctability that the passing of time comes with and the bitter aftertaste it always leaves behind. We feel, almost smell, that uncomfortable and at the same time welcoming intimacy that families and communities can offer.
It is its atmospheric element, rather than the strictly narrative one, that somehow exemplifies the miniseries’ gentle but probing essence. Helped by impeccable performances — including Francis McDormand’s confident reach for the sublime — the four-parts drama draws a temporal arch that doesn’t feel stretched or heavy-handedly epic. On the contrary, the colossal passage of time is rendered here with details and grand gestures are relegated to the intimate recesses of the characters lives. The time we experience as spectators is further enhanced by the fact that the narrative implications of the story have their roots well beyond the years over which the series takes place.
In four impalpable hours, we get to know Olive like family to the point, that her austere facial features and expressions seem those of a person we intimately know. It’s a sort of “Boyhood,” but with a beautiful grumpy old woman instead of an annoying teenage boy at its center. The production design is of the refined quality we have come to associate with contemporary TV serials, the detailed reconstruction of an old pharmacy where pills were individually boxed feeling like the work of an antiquarian.
Perhaps the psychological qualms between Olive and her son Christopher are slightly didactic and at times feels over-explained, as does the finale. Some other interesting, secondary characters are introduced — finely characterized but then left to their own devices. That said, “Olive Kitteridge” is yet another important brick in the picture house that HBO and other players are building, for what we still call television but needs now a new critical home.
“Olive Kitteridge” will premiere on HBO this November.