HBO's Olive Kitteridge: What the Critics Are Saying

Olive Kitteridge
Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia

Olive Kitteridge, airing Sunday and Monday on HBO, follows stern Maine schoolteacher Olive Kitteridge (Frances McDormand) and her relationships with her husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins); son, Chris (John Gallagher Jr.); and other members of their New England community. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko, the four-episode HBO miniseries was adapted by Jane Anderson from a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Elizabeth Strout, and also stars Bill Murray and Zoe Kazan

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Read what top critics are saying about Olive Kitteridge:

The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney writes that the series is “an all-around class act and a credit to everyone concerned.” Specifically, “the series has been given deluxe packaging, from Carter Burwell’s caressing score to the perceptive gaze and warm colors of Frederick Elmes’ graceful cinematography and the unfussy evocation of a 25-year period in Julie Berghoff’s production design and Jenny Eagan’s costumes.”

Additionally, “the title character provides [McDormand] with a wonderful role that stands among the most complex and memorable of her career,” especailly in “the first and arguably strongest episode.” McDormand “is a grounded, intelligent actress and her penetrating portrayal fully embraces the character’s flintiness, even harshness, without letting her tip over and become irredeemably unsympathetic. Olive’s humanity is never in doubt.”

The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley notes that McDormand “doesn’t fit the physical description of Olive, who in the book is tall and stoutly built, but this actress, whether playing Olive as a strict, crabby math teacher and caustic wife, or, later, as a judgmental grandmother and caustic loner, manages to convey a certain bulkiness that could be extra weight, or maybe just the heroine’s heaviness of heart.” Olive is “no day at the beach. Plenty of shows focus on women who are unlikely heroines; Olive is an unlikely heroine who is at first almost comically unlikable.”

The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum pens that it is “evidence that even the most daunting adaptations can work, without displacing its source material. Unlike Game of Thrones, whose plot twist settled naturally into the form of TV cliffhangers, Olive Kitteridge is a densely psychological story, whose main character, played by McDormand with radical intelligence, is not merely cranky but passive,” particularly in the second episode, “the miniseries’ masterpiece.” Cholodenko “forges connections between characters who are intractable isolates,” while the creators “honor the laws of adaptation, which are so easy to make fun of.”

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The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever calls it “a gloriously thoughtful wallow in the subtle and sometimes even insecure ways that families and friends relate to one another” and “a four-hour portrait that relishes both complexity and ambiguity.” Olive is a role that McDormand “was meant to play — ‘resting bitch face’ and all.” The “excellent makeup work ushers McDormand, who is 57, into her 60s and 70s, but she so naturally wears those years like a favorite old shoe, inhabiting old age in such a fearless way.” The series “proves once more that some of the best stories to be told in TV and film run counter to our most familiar coping mechanisms.”

USA Today’s Robert Bianco asserts McDormand's Emmy prospects: "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.” The series is “beautifully directed," "ingeniously constructed" and “seems precisely as long as it should be, without a moment wasted or another moment needed.”