Friday, July 24, 2015

Olive Kitteridge: Portrait of a Marriage

Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in the HBO miniseries, Olive Kitteridge.

Note: There are spoilers ahead in this review. 

The Maine coastal town where the sensational four-part HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, directed by Lisa Cholodenko and now on DVD, is set seems blighted by disaster and grief, but the story isn’t a Gothic. Jane Anderson’s screenplay, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 novel by Elizabeth Stout, puts the lives of the women and men who inhabit this community under a microscope to reveal how difficult the path is that all of us take through life, tortuous and stone-strewn and obscure. Some of the fates that befall subordinate characters are unusual. One is shot on a hunting foray by his best friend, who mistakes him for a deer. (Perhaps Stout was thinking of the plaintive reel “Molly Bán,” where a young man shoots his fiancée because, her apron up to shield her from a rainstorm in the forest, he takes her for a swan.) Another, whom we only hear about, becomes a psychotic killer. Most of the tragedies, though, are ordinary enough. The assistant to the local pharmacist, Henry Kitteridge (Richard Jenkins), collapses of a heart attack in the street outside the store and dies. Henry himself, in the middle of Part 3 (“A Different Road”), has a stroke and hangs on for four years, unable to communicate with his wife Olive (Frances McDormand), a retired math teacher.

More than anything else the characters suffer from depression, and Olive Kitteridge is a kind of tone poem on that subject. Olive does (as her father did before her), and her son Chris (John Gallagher, Jr.), whose first marriage is a shambles, and Patty Howe (Rachel Brosnahan), a waitress at the marina café whose mental state is situational, a result of a pair of miscarriages. Rachel Coulson (Rosemarie De Witt), whose son was a classmate of Chris’ and whom Olive taught, is bipolar in the days when most people who suffered from that affliction went undiagnosed. Olive’s fellow teacher Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), with whom she has had an unconsummated love affair, dies in a car crash that may be the result of drunk driving but was more likely a suicide. (It occurs moments after he leaves a restaurant where she and Henry are eating.) When Olive is still teaching – the narrative takes place over about a quarter of a century – she makes a rigorous attempt to take on Rachel’s depression, to get her out of bed and focused on her son Kevin, but eventually she slips away; we learn at the beginning of Part 2, “Incoming Tide,” that she shot herself. Kevin (now played by Cory Michael Smith) grows up and trains in psychiatry, but he can’t shake his mother’s ghost. When he passes through town the week of Chris’ wedding and runs into Olive, she picks up on the signs that he’s planning to replay Rachel’s suicide and manages to waylay him long enough to get him past the impulse, at least for the present. (When Cholodenko shifts briefly into his point of view, we see that he sometimes has disturbing visions.) Oddly, Kevin turns out to be Patty’s rescuer: when sharp-eyed Olive, who doesn’t appear to miss a trick, sees her tumble into the bay, he jumps in and drags her out. Her fall is an accident, though; she tells him that slipped while she was picking flowers, which she does to make herself feel better. “Is that all it takes for you?” he asks her in wonder.

Jane Anderson’s work is little known, but I think she’s one of America’s most brilliant and original dramatists. Her specialty is exploring unorthodox characters who spring up in conventional American settings. There’s the Texas woman (Holly Hunter) who hires a hit man to shoot a teenage girl because she stands in the way of her own daughter’s getting on the high-school cheerleading squad in The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993). There’s the middle-aged, middle-American husband and dad (Tom Wilkinson) who announces to his wife (Jessica Lange) that he wants to become a woman in Normal (2003). There’s the 1950s housewife (Julianne Moore), married to a rage-filled alcoholic (Woody Harrelson) who can’t hold down a job, who keeps her 1950s family solvent by winning contests in The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2005). You can see why Anderson wanted to adapt Oliver Kitteridge, whose protagonist is a bona fide Yankee eccentric – and not a lovable one. Olive’s style is terse and brusque, skeptical and ironic (or sarcastic), and she’s ferociously undemonstrative; she doesn’t suffer fools. Her obstinacy is both admirable (it bespeaks an independent spirit) and, like her sternness, sometimes terrifying. When Chris, at thirteen (when he’s played by Devin McKenzie Druid), refers to Kevin Coulson as “trash,” Olive hauls off and slaps him across the face, and you’re caught, as you often are with Olive, between two reactions: you applaud her for trying to nip her son’s snobbery in the bud while you cringe at the violence of her response. You can’t imagine how a burgeoning adolescent boy is supposed to weigh his feelings around her, since her moods are unpredictable and her anger doesn’t have gradations based on the seriousness of the offense. When he’s grown up and living in California with his first wife, Suzanne (Libby Winters), or when they’ve split up and he’s living in New York with his second wife, Ann (Audrey Marie Anderson), every time he calls home his mother appears to have been nursing some secret resentment; she erupts at him, blames him mysteriously, and either hangs up or hands the phone over to Henry. After he’s had some therapy he works up the courage to tell her how much damage he did to her when he was growing up, but then he ends up reverting to his good-son behavior because it’s easier. The second time he tries to be honest with her – when she’s visiting him and Ann in New York – things end badly. She expects him to apologize and when he doesn’t, she punishes him by dropping him a note rather than telephoning him when his father dies.

Frances McDormand and Bill Murray in Olive Kitteridge.

Olive is self-righteous but she’s not unaware of the effect she has on other people, both the ones she loves and the ones she doesn’t care about offending (like Suzanne, whose cavalier treatment of her at the wedding spurs her to a weird revenge). There are moments when she breaks down and cries about what a burden she is on her family. But her stiff-necked quality is beyond her control, like her moods, and she’s fighting depression. The only person who can handle her is Henry. Their marriage isn’t easy, God knows, but he’s gentle and patient, and he loves her so much that he holds onto her for dear life; a few days after Jim’s death in the car crash renders her inconsolable (as if it isn’t bad enough already, the Kittredges actually pass the burning wreck on the side of the highway) he approaches her in the garden – which she always tends lovingly, as if it could give her salvation – and begs her not to leave him. She criticizes Henry constantly and makes jokes at his expense; she’s embarrassed by his affection even though she craves it at the same time. Poetic Jim the English teacher, brooding and anti-social, seems to represent some romantic ideal she longs for because Henry is banal and middle-of-the-road, but she has a healthy sex life with Henry and she never sleeps with Jim. And when Henry has his stroke and can no longer talk to her, she visits him daily and chatters on to him over four long years as if he could understand her. When Olive and Chris have their second dreadful fight, in New York, Chris excoriates her for her lifelong insensitivity to his father. She replies that he doesn’t know the first thing about her marriage, and she’s right.

McDormand, who is nonpareil at mining the hidden feelings of proud, prickly women, gives the performance of her career, and she and the miraculously understated Jenkins are amazing together. American movies and TV have provided few portraits of a marriage as deeply plausible as this one, with its crazy complications and contradictions. Henry also looks beyond Olive, but not too far and not too intently, for the things she can’t provide him. He hires a young woman named Denise (Zoe Kazan) to replace his assistant and nurses her through her grief when her husband (Brady Corbet) dies (he’s the one who’s killed in the hunting accident). Olive calls her “the mouse” and bitches when Henry insists on inviting her to dinner since she can’t face eating by herself. Just as Henry senses her attachment to Jim, she figures out that his feelings for Denise are not just paternal, though he struggles against them. (Jenkins has a fine moment when Denise cries on his chest and, holding her, he gets turned on and pulls his hands away in terror.)

I couldn’t have imagined what a collaboration between Anderson and Cholodenko might be like. Cholodenko’s specialty is hip high comedy, and she’s talented at it, though I haven’t found any of her three features (High Art, Laurel Canyon and The Kids Are All Right), all of which she wrote herself, entirely satisfying. (High Art comes closest to working all the way through; the other two disintegrate from an apparent failure of nerve – she sets up wildly unconventional scenarios and then winds up falling back on convention.) Figuring out the right visual style for another writer’s very distinctive voice seems to liberate her; it helps that she’s got Frederick Elmes, that lyric poet of American small-town and suburban life (he shot Blue Velvet and The Ice Storm), as her cinematographer. And she’s always had a gift for directing actors. There are only a couple of scenes in which I sensed a disjunction between Anderson’s writing and Cholodenko’s direction, both in Part 3. One is a messy, complex episode where Olive and Henry are held hostage in a hospital emergency room by a couple of inexperienced thieves and end up vocalizing complaints against each other they’ve never aired (his discomfort with her relationship with Jim, hers with his relationship with Denise). The scene is superbly written and very daring, but it’s so bizarre that Cholodenko doesn’t know what to do with it, so despite the splendid acting of McDormand and Jenkins, the tone gets away from her. The other is a dream sequence. Otherwise Cholodenko’s direction is startlingly good, and under her guidance the performers are remarkable – not just from the two leads and that fine young actor John Gallagher Jr. (best known for the Aaron Sorkin series The Newsroom), but from a variety of supporting players including Kazan, Smith, Witt, James McMenamin (who played George in David Cromer’s legendary stage production of Our Town) as the poor tortured bastard who shoots Denise’s husband and Donna Mitchell as Olive’s friend Louise, whose son turned out to be a crazy murderer. Jesse Plemons (Landry on the TV series Friday Night Lights) does wonders with the small part of Jerry McCarthy, whom Henry employs at the pharmacy to make deliveries and whom he encourages to take Denise out after the sudden death of her husband. He lives to regret it. They end up marrying and moving away, but when they return for a visit and Denise brings Jerry by for dinner, and we see that domestic life has turned this sweet, awkward boy into a tyrant, insulting and condescending to his easily cowed wife. Bill Murray appears in Part 4, “Security,” as a widower who makes a connection with Olive after Henry dies and is almost as impossible as she is. (His scenes with McDormand, very different in tone from her scenes with Jenkins, are wonderful.) The only role I would have cast differently is that of Jim; Peter Mullan is too theatrical to fit in with an ensemble of actors who are dedicated to allowing the style of the movie to subsume their own individual styles.

That style is Jane Anderson’s, and I’d describe it as a kind of wonderstruck realism. David Lynch’s response to this material would be surrealism, but (except, of course, for the dream sequence) Anderson looks at these characters and relationships straight on but with a slightly dazed acknowledgement of their strangeness. And for those of us who have seen Olive Kitteridge, a dazed reaction doesn’t seem inappropriate. This miniseries is almost too good to be true.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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