Olive Kitteridge is part curmudgeon and all chameleon. The difficult high school teacher is caustic and thorny as a mother and wife living in a bleak town in Maine in the seventies and eighties. The mini-series is a slow, nuanced affair that contains as many layers as an onion. It’s something that will keep you on your toes and give you lots of food for thought thanks to its being a realistic study of some ordinary lives.
The series is an adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s book who is also a co-writer of the series along with Jane Anderson. Olive Kitteridge is directed by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright) who dubbed the story a “traumedy”. It’s a serious drama peppered with dry humour and is often like a Lionel Shriver novel crossed with Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Olive Kitteridge was initially a set of short stories about tragedy, love, pain and loyalty but the episodes are surprisingly cohesive in their earthy tones and overall outlook.
Frances McDormand stars as the eponymous character and is absolutely brilliant (she also doubles as an executive producer along with Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman). The story is told largely from Olive’s perspective and it shows her relationships primarily with her sappy and romantic pharmacist husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins) and the fractious association with her no-nonsense son, Christopher (John Gallagher Jr. plays the adult Christopher). There are other interesting characters here too, like the young widower, Denise Thibodeau (Zoe Kazan). Olive receives her with contempt after she goes to work in Henry’s pharmacy. There are also some great cameos from Bill Murray and musician, Martha Wainwright, who plays a lounge singer.
The series looks at 25 years in Olive’s life and is every bit as intelligent as it is real. This means the mundane and ordinary are often celebrated (just like the English TV series, The Office). These moments are combined with Olive’s one-liners, zingers and opinions as well as other anecdotes and events that colour and reveal a lot about the characters. The series is mature and full of intriguing people, not least Olive who believes she is depressed (the show begins with her contemplating suicide and holding a gun).
Olive Kitteridge has some flaws but it is well-meaning in its human exploration of small-town life. This social commentary may have some cynicism and misery but it is also entertaining. This understated show may prove a hard slog or challenge for some viewers but if you can see parallels between yourself and Olive or other people you know you should be pleasantly surprised.
Review score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
This DVD did not contain any special features.
Olive Kitteridge is now available on DVD through Warner Brothers and HBO Home Box Office.