She’s “Ollie” to her husband and “Mrs. K” to the students in her middle-school mathematics class, and her daughter-in-law insists on calling her “Mom.” But audiences will forever know this unforgettable, irascible woman as “Olive Kitteridge,” thanks to the remarkably complex portrayal Frances McDormand delivers over the course of a four-hour HBO miniseries she optioned and developed herself, bringing aboard her “Laurel Canyon” helmer, Lisa Cholodenko, to direct. Even more so than 2011’s “Mildred Pierce,” this finely crafted, wonderfully cast meller — which HBO will air in November — suggests a promising new life for the women’s-picture genre on nets willing to let such stories breathe.
Elizabeth Strout wrote “Olive Kitteridge” not as a traditional novel, but rather as a collection of 13 short stories — a portrait of small-town Crosby, Maine, with its minor crises and major hypocrisies, interlinked by the presence (sometimes peripheral) of Olive’s character. Such a format makes it all but impossible to reduce the Pulitzer-winning book’s nonlinear quarter-century span to an efficient two-hour narrative. Besides, the feature format is better suited to heroes with clearly defined goals and a fixed timeframe in which to achieve them, whereas “Olive Kitteridge” has more existential concerns on its mind. That may lead to viewer attrition, as auds tune in for the first hour but may not be necessarily hooked to the end, though each successive episode takes those who remain deeper into the family’s private world.
In the book’s best chapter, which screenwriter Jane Anderson (“The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio”) tucks into the second installment, Kevin Coulson (Cory Michael Smith) returns to Crosby, with a shotgun. It has been some years since his mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) killed herself, and now he plans to take his own life, working out the logistics in his head when Olive taps on his car window and invites herself in to sit down beside him. Speaking to Olive, whom he imagines for a split second as an elephant, the young man is reminded of lines from a John Berryman poem: “Save us from shotguns & fathers’ suicides … Mercy! … do not pull the trigger or all my life I’ll suffer from your anger.”
Thematically speaking, shotguns and fathers’ suicides loom heavy over much of the miniseries, which tends to view its “Our Town”-like cross-section of Crosby residents in generational terms, where children are constantly dealing with their parents’ baggage, and where middle-school teachers appear to have relatively little impact on the lives of their students. But in this scene, Olive manages to get through to Kevin, revealing to him that her father shot himself, too. Depression may or may not run in Olive’s family. She certainly seems to have passed it on to her son, Christopher (“The Newsroom’s” John Gallagher, Jr.), who grows up resenting his mom, and in the teleplay’s opening scene, we see Olive, widowed and unhappy at the end of her life, going for a picnic in the woods where, instead of bringing food, she unpacks a revolver.
Nearly three-and-a-half hours pass before Anderson brings the narrative back around to this suicidal excursion, which lends a strange air of tragic suspense to the Kitteridges’ unhurried and generally upbeat existence. For much of the mini, Olive actually appears to be a secondary character in her own life, sort of the surly opposite of a busybody — a woman who’s always present, but seldom wants to engage with other people’s troubles. McDormand shines when she’s onscreen but never tries to upstage, even when delivering the best lines, having humbly seen something of herself in a character that, according to Strout’s description, “probably looks like a fat, dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage.”
Meanwhile, our sympathies naturally gravitate to her doting husband, Henry. With minimal fuss and maximum heart, Richard Jenkins makes the most of this substantive role, playing a simple and instinctively tender soul who runs the local pharmacy and who, within the first half-hour, tries in vain to save the lives of two customers.
Though it hails from the network responsible for “The Sopranos” and “Game of Thrones,” it’s strange to think that “Olive Kitteridge” would boast a body count. Strout’s novel deals not in whackings, but in “wicky-wacky” family intrigue. Still, death is as much a part of life as anything, and so, amid the marriages and divorces, love affairs and arguments, these episodes feature hunting accidents and car wrecks, a woman falling off a cliff, an armed stickup, the hovering threat of suicide, and the deaths of one dog and one cat, handled with varying degrees of comedy and pathos.
In taming the book’s scattered timeline, Anderson has reordered everything more or less chronologically (with room for a few flashbacks). We see Henry nursing an innocent crush on Denise (Zoe Kazan), a young woman who comes to work at his pharmacy, and we discover gradually that despite his unconditional love for Olive, his wife’s heart belongs to another man (Peter Mullan). The miniseries even sticks around long enough for Olive to meet another man, a “rich old flubdub” named Jack Kennison (Bill Murray, making a big impression with a small role), whose own political intolerance reveals Olive to be less set in her ways than we may have thought.
Anderson peppers her screenplay with colorful small-town argot, though McDormand goes easy on the Maine accent, as if to distinguish Olive from Marge Gunderson. Cholodenko is careful to place the comedic focus on how Olive and her circle think, rather than the way they talk, embracing the time the miniseries format affords to observe seemingly mundane tasks. The film’s most revealing character scene is one McDormand plays almost entirely solo, sneaking away from her son’s wedding reception to take a nap upstairs.
Olive is not what we might conventionally refer to as a good person, and it’s reasonable to question how many people might show up at her funeral — just as it’s fair to ask, even before she goes off into the woods with her gun, whether her son might already be suffering from his mother’s anger. Olive can be cruel and tactless, and though her “candor” (as neighbor Louise Larkin calls it) is always good for a laugh, there’s something uncouth in the way she scolds other people’s children or goes about prepping her baked potato while everyone else stops to listen to her husband’s wedding toast.
As picturesque as the telepic’s Maine locations can be, Cholodenko doesn’t linger long outdoors, except to watch Olive fussing among her flowerbeds — one of those bits of business, like sorting pills at the pharmacy or scrubbing the fridge, that reframe human accomplishment in day-to-day terms. Olive may not be a fancy cook, but she puts food on the table every night, only to see her son grow up to complain about his childhood. In never condescending toward those who take pride in such pursuits as cross-stitching and woodcarving, the helmer aims to be true to Strout’s prose, which celebrates traditional family values even as it reveals there to be no such thing. “Olive Kitteridge” captures a flavor of American life experienced by many, but chronicled by few, where even after-dinner burps — or, in one scene, a case of explosive diarrhea — are details worth noting.
Slightly better off than they were in the book, the Kitteridges live in an enviable home overlooking the ocean, too preoccupied with domestic concerns most days to take in the view. This largely indoor focus tends to give things a somewhat theatrical feel, heightened by the way every home furnishing, costume and prop appears to have been picked by a stage designer, rather than by Olive herself. (Some of the period scenes get a little carried away with the patterns, though her home-sewn dress is a scene stealer.)
Musically, an aging barroom singer (Martha Wainwright) provides continuity right up to the retirement home, and Henry’s taste in classical radio broadcasts never changes. But it’s Carter Burwell who sets the tone with one of those rich scores of his that invites personal reflection without spelling out exactly how we should feel. As Olive notes, the men in her family “don’t understand subtext,” though McDormand and her collaborators are counting on the fact that audiences do.