There are many reasons to applaud what HBO has done for us, the audience, and for filmmakers wishing to make quality work. One only needs to look to OLIVE KITTERIDGE for the proof of that. The story, based upon a book by Elizabeth Strout, does not have the epic scope nor the “gottcha” cliff-hangers too often the norm now with popular television series. It’s too short, too complex and too intimate to fit the standard definition of a mini-series so networks would avoid making it. The subject matter, mental imbalance and disease and marital and parental discord, doesn’t seem to fit well with habits among the movie-going public so it’s unlikely a studio would have greenlit it. Caught between two worlds the story needed something like Home Box Office.
But it also needed the principal filmmakers. Director Lisa Cholodenko may have produced her best work yet with KITTERIDGE. She has also enabled the best performances from Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins, no small feat considering their respective filmographies.
The story is done in four parts and recounts, by going back and forth in time, the marriage of Olive and Henry Kitteridge in their seaside town in Maine. Henry is a positive, easy-going pharmacist who is polite and conforming to a caution. That’s in stark contrast to Olive, a tense, judgmental school teacher. She berates Henry and, originally, appears desperately unhappy in her marriage. They have raised a surly, smart-mouthed boy, Christopher (played, as a teen by Devin Druid), who has picked up his mother’s trait of delivering acerbic and cruel responses. Life looks bleak for all involved and, not being familiar with the book, I wondered when the DOLORES CLAIBORNE stuff was going to start. It never did.
Instead what unfolded was a tender examination and rich character study of what makes some people, and some couples, function or not. Wonderful and complicated no one is given one-note characters. Each has moments of weakness, of pettiness, of vindictiveness but also of kindness and even heroism. This is especially true of Olive.
McDormand delivers the performance of her life. Olive is a scold, a termagent, the kind of woman that other people talk about in hushed tones. She’s the bad mother-in-law, the mean teacher and the hen who pecks her husband in one package. Yes, she’s blunt but she’s also attuned to the lies and niceties of society, put in place to keep people from talking about and acknowledging the real problems, of depression, insanity, hopelessness and cruel fate. In spite of all this she is truly loved by Henry and, eventually in KITTERIDGE, we understand why.
Richard Jenkins’s Henry is another quality creation by the actor. The pharmacist, so utterly cheery, is obviously not a fool, and Cholodenko and Jenkins dig into what makes a man like Henry behave the way he does. Is he so afraid of confrontation and chaos that he’s unwilling to challenge her? Or, is he so attuned to what she’s feeling, knowing her history, that he understands what drives her radical mood swings. In this series, it’s a bit of that and more.
There are also numerous surprises here, of the best kind, both unexpected and organic. To give but one example, when Cholodenko takes us to meet the grown up Chris we expect a petulant, entitled adult. He turns out, however, to be a caring, tender man, a podiatrist by trade, who has worked through therapy to heal the wounds his mother inflicted on him.
To make these revelations work Cholodenko has gotten great performances from all her other players as well. Of particular note is Cory Michael Smith, who plays Kevin Coulson, an abused child who comes back as a haunted young man, and the grown up Christopher, played by John Gallagher Jr.. You can watch Gallagher’s Chris tamping down his genetic inheritance, rage and retribution, in nearly every frame.
Though I would have loved more resolution (there are some characters, such as Kevin Coulson, who essentially disappears) this is a series to be cherished, like a beloved novel, where we are given insight into lives we would dismiss in real life and are richer for it.