'Olive Kitteridge': Venice Review

Olive Kitteridge
Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Another career high point for the remarkable Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand stars as the prickly New England math teacher of Elizabeth Strout's book in this HBO miniseries directed by Lisa Cholodenko

Hollywood studios are no longer in the business of making minor-key contemplations of life, death, marriage and family like Olive Kitteridge, which turns out to be an excellent thing for Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 novel. While not all the book’s 13 interconnected stories and throng of characters are covered, the tone is captured and the essential elements given ample breathing space in this emotionally satisfying, funny-sad four-part HBO miniseries. Produced by Tom Hanks’ Playtone banner, it’s directed with an impeccable balance of sensitivity and humor by Lisa Cholodenko and expertly adapted by Jane Anderson.

Airing on HBO in November, the series premiered in its entirety at the Venice International Film Festival, where Frances McDormand is being presented with a Visionary Talent Award. McDormand optioned the book herself and served as an executive producer on the project, reteaming with her Laurel Canyon director. The title character provides her with a wonderful role that stands among the most complex and memorable of her career.

A math teacher in a fictitious small coastal town in Maine, Olive habitually hands out C grades to most of her students. That ungenerous assessment extends to a lot of people she encounters, many of them dismissed as “dopes” and “saps.” A blunt, abrasive woman with a cutting sense of humor, she has little time for words of comfort or flattery, and while she’s not without compassion, she shows it sparingly, on her own strictly unsentimental terms.

None of that makes Olive easy to love, but 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 heart of the story is her marriage to mild-mannered pharmacist Henry (Richard Jenkins), who’s as caring and kind with his customers as Olive is brittle with the people in her orbit. While this is unmistakably McDormand’s vehicle, Jenkins’ lovely performance gives her the perfect foil.

Their union is a classic mismatch, and one shudders often as Henry’s upbeat observations and affectionate gestures are struck down by Olive’s unvarnished worldview, distilled into a sardonic quip. In the first and arguably strongest episode, "Pharmacy," they both entertain the notion of more suited soul mates — Olive with her fellow teacher Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), a complicated man with an affinity for the haunted poetry of John Berryman; Henry with the sweet-natured mouse Denise (Zoe Kazan), who works for him. Watching Jenkins' face transform into giggling boyish delight around her is a heartbreaking joy.

Regret associated with those figures and all that they represent ripples through the four-episode arc. But what coalesces by degrees is a beautiful portrait of the give-and-take of marriage, the frustrations and disappointments, compromises and sorrows, the pain inflicted and the forgiveness bestowed. It feels exquisitely true to life that Olive only acknowledges her love for Henry when their time together is almost up.

The relationship between parents and children comes into focus via the Kitteridges’ son Chris (Devin Druid as a child, John Gallagher Jr. in older years). As Chris goes through one unhappy marriage and a lot of therapy before finding a more workable though still imperfect domestic situation, his resentment bubbles up over the difficulties of growing up with a mother like Olive.

Depression is a significant theme here. It drifts like gray clouds across the sleepy town and the gorgeous New England scenery, surfacing from one generation to the next in family histories. One of the most affecting threads concerns couch-bound Valium popper Rachel Coulson (Rosemarie DeWitt), and later, her grown son Kevin (Cory Michael Smith), back from doing psychiatry at Columbia and ready to give up on life until Olive interrupts his despair.

These stories steer clear of the maudlin. In Kevin’s plotline, which unfolds in episode two, "Incoming Tide," the subtly heightened reality of the drama (often reminiscent of HBO’s Six Feet Under) makes way for quirky touches of magic realism that seem somewhat imposed. But the principal achievement of Cholodenko, Anderson and the entire cast is that the melancholy chill never becomes a downer. The material’s poignancy and its strain of humor — from delicate through mordant and countless shades in between — are no less sharp than in Strout’s book.

The sense of how a small community interacts, with friendships and frictions evolving over time just like the downtown storefronts, is depicted with fine brushstrokes. So too is the way people change, illustrated in Henry’s painfully shy delivery boy Jerry (Jesse Plemons), who becomes someone else after business school.

While many characters inevitably have been scaled back from the novel, their stories often resonate quietly from mere suggestions, especially when terrific actors like Mullan, DeWitt, Ann Dowd, Rachel Brosnahan and Brady Corbet are involved. And while Bill Murray might seem odd casting as an intolerant Rush Limbaugh fan, his appearance as a wealthy widower who forms an unlikely bond with Olive provides a tender concluding note in the final episode, "Security."

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. Just observing the changing hairstyles, wardrobe and song choices of Angela (Martha Wainwright), the pianist at a popular local bar and restaurant, provides a gently amusing reminder of how time passes here, a few beats behind big-city life.

Unhurried but amply rewarding, Olive Kitteridge is an all-around class act and a credit to everyone concerned.

Production company: HBO Miniseries, Playtone, in association with As Is

Cast: Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, John Gallagher Jr., Bill Murray, Peter Mullan, Rosemarie DeWitt, Zoe Kazan, Cory Michael Smith, Jesse Plemons, Ann Dowd, Brady Corbet, Audrey Marie Anderson, Patricia Kalember, Maryann Urbano, Martha Wainwright, Donna Mitchell, Rachel Brosnahan, Ken Cheeseman

Director: Lisa Cholodenko

Writer: Jane Anderson, based on Elizabeth Strout’s novel

Producer: David Coatsworth

Executive producers: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Frances McDormand, Jane Anderson

Director of photography: Frederick Elmes

Production designer: Julie Berghoff

Costume designer: Jenny Eagan

Music: Carter Burwell

Editor: Jeffrey M. Werner

No rating, 232 minutes.