Based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge is an essentially optimistic portrait of disappointment, which the miniseries shows to be reliable proof that a person is alive and open and feeling. The titular character, a schoolteacher, mother, and notorious curmudgeon played by Frances McDormand, even goes so far as to say that depression is a sign of intelligence, implying that only the dullards are closed off to the disease’s challenging circuitry. These sentiments, delivered matter-of-factly, devoid of any shred of self-pity or existential rootlessness, are indicative of Olive Kitteridge’s magnificent, cleansing power; it’s an honest tearjerker that treats its characters with respect, according them a great sense of wounded, tattered dignity.
Olive Kitteridge spans 25 years, detailing a family’s life in a small coastal Maine town. In the prologue, we see Olive as an elderly woman walking through a patch of woods with a picnic basket. She sets the basket on the ground and pulls out a revolver. We’re then taken back to when she and her pharmacist husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins), were middle-aged and raising their son, Christopher (Devin Druid), making their way as a stable, respected middle-class family of Maine lifers. It’s clear early on that Olive is one of those teachers one despises as a child, but grows to remember fondly, when it’s retrospectively obvious that she had the empathy and temerity to regard her students as adults. When a student’s mother arrives early to pick him up, she insists he serves out the last 20 minutes of his detention, and she mercilessly takes Henry and Christopher to task for their shortcomings, which often boil down to a sentimental hero complex in the former, and a failure of empathy in the latter.
What McDormand allows us to see, in an extraordinary performance, is that Olive’s actions are colored by a fundamental sense of decency; for her, mediocrity (derived from self-satisfaction) is a moral affront, and for all her aggressiveness, she’s quick to shrewdly, quietly bolster those at the edge of ruin. But McDormand doesn’t soften Olive by telegraphing that decency; she displays the same tough sense of respect for her character that Olive extends to her often-begrudging friends and family. What Jenkins allows us to see, in a performance that’s equally beautiful, is that Henry’s a mild, good man who knows he’s lucked into a woman with a fiery temperament that would normally inspire her to look elsewhere; his relationship with Olive is the dance of his life, and he’s grateful for it even when he hates her.
The supporting actors are also astonishingly strong, and make such an intense impression so quickly that they affirm the bittersweet feeling of time moving on—particularly the romantic partners that Olive and Henry almost have in spite, or perhaps because of, their fraught marriage: an alcoholic colleague (Peter Mullan) and Denise (Zoe Kazan), a young, dim woman whom Henry hires at the pharmacy, respectively. It’s not difficult to see what each person brings to Olive and Henry that they fail to give one another. Olive’s colleague is sexily disenfranchised (he’s an English teacher, what else could he be?), resolutely different from Henry’s eagerness to please, while Denise grants Henry the kind of utter devotion and hero worship that’s alien to Olive.
Director Lisa Cholodenko establishes a unified rapport between her actors that often eludes huge star or character-actor-studded vehicles. There’s a palpable sense of the history—of slights, and shared secrets—that weighs on these characters, spurring their behavior; the miniseries has an unusually novelistic sense of texture and density, reminiscent, not just of Sprout, but of the work of Richard Russo. (Spoilers herein.) When Henry invites Denise over for dinner after her husband is killed in a hunting accident, she refuses to eat, and Henry begins to feed her like a child. Olive and Christopher, on the opposite sides of a kitchen table that might as well be in another dimension, are understandably embarrassed and appalled at the desperate intimacy they’re witnessing. But Cholodenko doesn’t play favorites, which is to say that one’s empathy is directed, equally, toward everyone. It’s an X-ray scene: We appear to be able to look through everyone at once, understanding Henry and Denise’s loneliness while appreciating Olive and Christopher’s resentment, while also appreciating how both emotional registers feed and perpetuate one another at once.
Cholodenko and screenwriter Jane Anderson also have the talent, and the patience, for setting up emotional beats that will pay off an hour or two later, affirming the notion of regret as an unruly ocean. Kevin (Cory Michael Smith), the grown-up child of a woman who committed suicide (Rosemarie DeWitt), sits at a bar while a lounge singer (Martha Wainwright) performs poignant, maudlin tunes at the piano; he’s recently planned to kill himself, put off only by a chance encounter with Olive. At the other side of the bar, Christopher, played by John Gallagher as an adult, is getting married. It’s one of those great, heavy, evocative recreations of a tragically common social situation: witnessing (what is perceived to be) someone else’s defining happiness, which forces one to feel more detached and aloof from life than ever before, stuck forever as a bystander to existence. Kevin sips a drink, lost, sitting in a chair that once held, years ago, Olive’s sexy colleague before he was killed in a drunken car accident that’s rumored to have been intentional. And then he notices a napkin the teacher once wrote on, and it triggers a memory in which the man extended to Kevin a kindness. Few movies or series have ever captured the alienating fog and the piercing, cyclical hopelessness of depression with such vividness and subtlety, and there are a dozen scenes in Olive Kitteridge that equal it.
Like all humanist art, Olive Kitteridge doesn’t allow the viewer to get too smug or confident in their assessment of something. There’s an ongoing joy of discovery, a sense of things always changing, and sadness in knowing that only a precious little can ever be truly discerned about someone; everyone lives in their private realms, unknowable. Christopher, for instance, appears to be a hopelessly insincere and callow yuppie when we first meet him as an adult through Kevin’s eyes, but later we realize he’s as lost as anyone else in the film, particularly because of his understandable resentment of Olive, who Christopher knows favored and respected Kevin. This is ultimately why Olive Kitteridge is so overwhelmingly moving: It shows that no one knows anything, while allowing for the hope that one might, at last, come to know just a little something that might bring them in closer to the fold of the fellow members of their species. To paraphrase Olive, it creates a strange, painful world that we, nevertheless, do not wish to leave.