Film Review: Olive Kitteridge

I am a sucker for award shows. To be more specific, The Oscars. But lately, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to television. Me and the rest of the world, it seems, with the “original series” trend that has swept the internet by storm. So, I caught a glimpse or two of the Golden Globes that aired last Sunday night and saw how dour Frances McDormand looked. Her facial expression got swept up on the Twitterverse much like McKayla Maroney during the London Olympics in 2012. They were unimpressed.

But it made me curious to see Olive Kitteridge, the HBO miniseries McDormand was nominated for. Told in four, one-hour segments, the “film” is a series of vignettes or stories that happen to Olive over twenty-five years of her life. We open with a very telling scene between an affectionate husband, Henry, trying to show his love in the form of a Valentine’s Day card to his sarcastic and abrasive wife. Their son, Chris, is in the middle of the two, adoring his father and hating his mother with every snide comment she spews.

At first, it seems like a cliche and stereotypical story about this woman’s life, but what made this all the more intriguing, so much so that I watched all four hours in one sitting, was that the stories are not about Olive but rather about the people around her. Plenty happens to her during this time like the death of her lover, a hostage situation, and the slow death of her husband, but daily life for Olive seems rather dull, so why focus on her gardening when you can meet the inhabitants of Crosby, Maine through her eyes?

The first character we meet and get rather attached to is Denise, played by Zoe Kazan. She is a mousy dimwit that has unwittingly charmed Henry as she takes a job working in his pharmacy. Henry is drawn to her like a moth to the flame with her shy smiles and naivety. Everything she is and represents is the polar opposite of Olive. While he keeps his distance, even setting her up with another man, the love for her never dies through the twenty-five years, and we are constantly reminded and pained every time he mentions her name to Olive. It’s a reminder that he has love to give but no one to take it.

Another prominent character duo is Rachel Coulson played by Rosemarie Dewitt, and her son, Kevin. Rachel suffers from extreme depression and visions. In one scene, she sits on her boat which is firmly parked in her driveway, thinking she is fighting birds away from the ocean. This deeply affected her son as he grew up to study psychology only to learn he suffers from her same afflictions. He would see the face of an elephant rather than Olive’s scowl and purple snakes rather than sticks. But the difference between him and his mother is he knows they are visions and not reality. This is something that gives him grief and guilt rather than relief because he couldn’t save his mother from her own demise.

Fighting with the urge to kill himself as well, Olive swoops in and distracts him long enough to let the immediate need pass. This is what I mean about things happening around her rather than to her. Olive becomes a sort of grumpy guardian angel to her community putting her nose where it doesn’t belong literally talking people off the edge or flat out saving their lives.

What I find interesting as well is that suicide is a running theme through the entire series. It keeps coming up in Olive’s father’s death, Rachel Coulson and then her son, Kevin, her lover, and of course her own plagued thoughts. It made me think it had to do with their location more than their plight. In Maine, the weather isn’t that much different from London, and I can definitely see why the lack of sunshine would drive anyone mad. But the cinematography done by Frederick Elms did not shy away from the gorgeous landscape and ocean fronts. It seemed that Henry was the only one in the town who didn’t take the bay for granted.

One scene in particular shows Henry standing on his front porch looking out. Olive comes over to him and rather bruskly asks what he’s doing. She says this line in such a way that made it seem like he was doing something wrong or taboo even. Everything is so gray and dour with Olive that she can’t even allow her husband to take in the stark blues of their impossibly affordable view.

Overall, the series was very well shot and written adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Elizabeth Strout. It took me by surprise with the slow but compassionate narrative. While I could just see Frances channeling her northern accent from Fargo, she was remarkable as a woman misunderstood and unhappily content. Richard Jenkins plays the sap husband too afraid of his affections to recognize them in another woman, and Bill Murray plays a whole 10 minutes in the entire series as a perfect foil to Jenkins’ model spouse. With an incredible cast, director, and location, this miniseries is not to be missed.

Olive Kitteridge was nominated for Golden Globes in Best Miniseries, Best Actress (McDormand), and Best Supporting Actor (Murray).

4 out of 5 stars


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