Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Review: "Olive Kitteridge"

Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Runtime (233 minutes/4 episodes)

TV has been in its current Golden Age for quite a while now, but the medium has never been more respected than now. Movies and miniseries for TV are attracting Oscar-winning names, and playing at film festivals as they scoop up hoards of Emmy Awards. Last year, HBO's Behind the Candelabra played at Cannes, opened theatrically in Europe, and aired as a TV movie in the US. The lines between the prestige levels of TV and film have never been more blurred, and it's glorious. 

The latest example of TV's ascension as a storytelling medium comes not in the form of a movie, but a four hour miniseries titled Olive Kitteridge. A miniseries that had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival alongside films like Birdman. Fittingly, the beautiful opening credits of Olive's four episodes include the credit "A Film by Lisa Cholodenko." Cholodenko, who's been relatively quiet since her acclaimed indie The Kids Are All Right (2010), has moved from the big to the small screen, yet her talents as a director have never felt larger. Bolstered by a bracing, complex performance from Frances McDormand and a magnificent script, Olive Kitteridge is one of the best things any TV channel or movie studio has turned out all year. 

Adapted from Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Cholodenko's film/miniseries/whatever starts modestly, but quickly grows into a rich portrait of life, loss, and marriage. Olive and Henry Kitteridge (McDormand and Richard Jenkins) live in rural Maine, where she teaches math and he owns the local pharmacy. Henry is absolutely beloved by the townsfolk. He's a kind soul, always ready to offer comfort to those even remotely down. Olive is....the opposite. Perhaps it's best to describe her as complicated. While not evil, Olive has a bluntness and a candor about her that is about as far away from her warm and cuddly husband as humanly possible. Part of this is the depression (runs in the family), although she doesn't mind. For Olive, depression is just a sign of intelligence.

By contrast, many of the denizens of Olive's world are considerably more upbeat and, as Olive sees them, less astute. Writer Jane Anderson never goes out of the way to validate Olive's tough perspective, but she hardly waves a finger at her either. Anderson, Cholodenko, and McDormand don't care if you like Olive. The character certainly doesn't give a damn, so why should they?

Despite her prickly personality, however, Olive's complexities are remarkably easy to watch. McDormand works the role so thoroughly on her weathered, expressive face that any issues one may have with the character's personality soon become afterthoughts. Clearly, Henry has seen something in Olive that makes her worth sticking with, even when her remarks border on cruel. Eventually, you will too. 

Just in case Olive proves to be too much at the start, Anderson and Cholodenko wisely keep the first installment focused more on Henry. Jenkins is a great fit for the role, and taps into Henry's charm and occasional mushiness without becoming overbearing. His efforts to stick up for mousey-looking local pushover Denise (Zoe Kazan) are met with derision from Olive, but he persists, becoming a loose father figure to the young woman. Were it not for the age difference, Henry and Denise would be a perfect couple. But affairs aren't something either of the Kitteridge's meddle in, though at times it seems like it might be for the best. So much is withheld in Olive and Henry's marriage, often resulting in unnecessary pain that lasts years. 

That pain is difficult for the characters to endure, but it makes for engrossing drama thanks to the commitment from the actors and the maturity of the writing and directing. Olive Kitteridge covers 25 years in total, and its handling of the central marriage is one of the most thorough and complete renderings in recent memory. In The Kids Are All Right, Cholodenko also tackled the notion that long marriages are hard, but the tidy resolution of everything bordered on simplification. Here, the director is able to investigate a marriage that's not only long, but also quite difficult, without having to rush anything. The series' four hours mostly fly by, even with all of the terrible things that happen as time goes on.

And even though Olive's behavior is relatively consistent, it is far from repetitive. There are no easy explanations for Olive's mindset, but given the time it has to develop, McDormand is able to create a rich character. The sense of humor on display is dry and dark, turning insults or dismissive remarks into gut-busting hilarity. When Olive takes out a jar of peanuts in the middle of her son Chris' (John Gallagher Jr.) wedding, it's played as straight as possible, a perfect slice of deadpan humor.

As much as Olive Kitteridge is a film about marriage, it's also a film about being a parent. After Henry, the most compelling supporting character is the adult version of her son, who goes through his own share of ups and downs. Things between mother and child are often tense, since Chris harbors quite a bit of resentment towards his mother (some of it quite justified). The eventual emotional explosions that take place between the two could have easily disrupted the story's subtlety, but McDormand and Gallagher are both so grounded in their roles that there's never a false moment. Olive's parenting doesn't get nearly as much attention as her role as a wife, yet the two actors are entirely convincing in their portrayal of the relationship. Olive Kitteridge's big flare ups are rare, but when they arrive, they come as thoughtfully constructed developments of plot and character.

Though the source material was more of an ensemble piece, the decision to zero-in on Olive as a protagonist couldn't have been a smarter choice. Olive is the story's anchor, but she's never left behind as a passive character. It helps that McDormand, who should probably prep her Emmy speech now, couldn't be better in the role. Olive's appearance doesn't change much (makeup and hair styling are minimal), but the emotional weight of the character's actions are all the actress needs to get to this woman's thorny center. Every retort, outburst, and curt remark is expertly delivered. More impressive is how well McDormand is able to tap into Olive's own strange definition of love and warmth, and gives real weight to some of the story's most poignant scenes. It's hard to get to Olive. She takes most things like a stone battered by waves. Yet even the mightiest rocks start to wear away by the smallest amounts, and the way McDormand communicates this is often astounding. 

Cholodenko and her collaborators do an excellent job of backing up the cast and the material. In the director's chair, Cholodenko never strains the story's big moments, avoiding unnecessary melodrama. Her work with cinematographer Frederick Elmes has a rich, overcast look that captures the Maine settings without getting in the way of the story. And Cholodenko's work with her actors, even those in smaller roles, is first rate from start to finish. Longtime Coen brothers' composer Carter Burwell gently adds to the story's emotional arcs with minimalist musical contributions, along with a beautiful and mournful tune for the opening credits sequence. Costuming, make up, and set design convey the passage of time seamlessly.

On the surface, Olive Kitteridge's story doesn't exactly demand to be filmed. It's quite easy to imagine a stage version of the novel. But in going the cinematic (televisual?) route, Cholodenko is able to flesh out the minor details of Olive and Henry's life without going overboard. There's a quietness to this story that demands the dark intimacy of a theater or TV room, where the sense of time and place can act as the gently all-encompassing backdrop to the deeply felt human drama at the center. As far as character studies go, film and TV rarely get much better.

Grade: A

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