Not that the tone of these two works is similar, the latter is decidedly more buoyant, but that the relationship that has kept two individuals together across decades is a study in love and compromise.
Olive Kitteridge, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Elizabeth Strouts, could easily have been renamed Olive and Henry Kitteridge. The four part HBO miniseries spans a generation of their marriage in New England, beginning around 1980, ending in the present (including flashbacks).
School-teacher Olive (Frances McDormand) is married to small-town pharmacist Henry (Richard Jenkins), parents to a single son Christopher. Theirs is a routine, uninspiring existence of cantankerous family meals, menial employment, tending to their coastal garden and the occasional dinner with friends. There’s not much to separate the days, which explains why Henry takes a shine to female assistant Denise (Zoe Kazan) at half his age, and Olive shows a growing friendship with a school colleague (Peter Mullan).
While Henry is a decidedly benevolent chap, Olive’s manner is brusque and her expectations set a high benchmark for those around her. Amid all of these curious alliances, there is a lot of keeping up of appearances by husband and wife, peppered with plenty of tension -the subtext is one of the strongest features of this drama. But it’s hard to know what keeps them together.
As the series progresses, Christopher grows up and moves away in frustration at family life. Played as an adult by John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom), he experiences his own fragmented marriages, always seeking validation from his mother.
Other supporting characters include Rachel Coulson (Rosemarie DeWitt) as a depressed patient of Henry’s, local widower Jack (Bill Murray) and town pianist Angela (Martha Wainwright), whose gigs reflect the passage of time and capture a sense of melancholia.
But there are also dark tones to Olive Kitteridge, with the central character opening the drama in the present, contemplating suicide with a revolver in her hand and a letter for those who find her. Such tendencies, it emerges, run in the family…
In the hands of director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right, Laurel Canyon), Olive Kitteridge may be a slow-burn but its charms work on you. The intriguing question of “What on earth is keeping this couple together?” is matched only by questions about whether it is a case of ’til death us do part’ or whether there is indeed deep love despite daily conflict. Do we always hurt the one we love the most? What keeps us going?
The performances are quite wonderful, with McDormand undeniable in the titular role. Yet Richard Jenkins (The Visitor, Six Feet Under) matches her every step of the way in a role that could have easily been overshadowed. John Gallagher Jr., representing new over old-fashioned values, completes the family trio.
Together with a teleplay by Jane Anderson (The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, Normal) the sum total of this piece is rather like sitting down to an evening of ‘American theater.’ Like other works such as Mildred Pierce or On Golden Pond, there is much to be gained in putting excellent creative talent to an American melodrama of this calibre.
Olive Kitteridge is a showcase for Frances McDormand, also an exec producer along with Tom Hanks, and we’re all the more richer for it.
7:30pm Tuesday on Showcase.