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Monitor: The Brutal Triumphs of HBO’s Olive Kitteridge

Aaron Yap dissects Frances McDormand’s cripplingly powerful portrayal of depression, parenthood and marriage in the HBO mini-series Olive Kitteridge. //

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There are probably few characters as singularly challenging in recent television as the protagonist of Lisa Cholodenko’s Olive Kitteridge. A streamlined, absorbing, richly textured adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, this four-hour HBO mini-series hints that her company won’t exactly be the most pleasant from the get-go. When we first meet Olive (Frances McDormand), a math-teaching curmudgeon in the fictional coastal town of Crosby, Maine, she’s roaming the woods, searching for a suitable spot to blow her brains out.

It’s a downright downer of an opening, and the grim tone doesn’t let up as the story flashes back to uncover a 25-year history of marital and parental turmoil that has brought her to this moment of utter desperation.

Giving credence to the adage “opposites attract”, the unwaveringly caustic Olive is married to Henry (Richard Jenkins). He’s a gentle, good-hearted pharmacist – who’s still able to love her even if she trashes the Valentine’s Day card he’s gifted her immediately after reading it. The relationship, in its wildly diametric temperaments, has curdled into numbing tolerance and routine acceptance.

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Signs of contentment are lacking. Olive entertains a flirtatious courtship with her alcoholic, similarly glum colleague Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan). Henry is smitten by his new, much younger employee Denise (Zoe Kazan), who ignites a rosy vitality and purpose in him that’s absent in his daily life with Olive. Caught in the centre is their 13-year-old son Christopher (Devin Druid), who, unable to find a stable compass among the familial dysfunction, will eventually grow up to be a Prozac-popping mess of seething resentment and bitterness.

As wise as it is about marriage and parenthood, Olive Kitteridge is brutally frank and honest about depression. It’s a long, persistent, crippling burden that lasts for years, spreading from one generation to the next. Olive carries the psychological scars of her father’s suicide, but she’s not alone in her suffering. In Part Two, she bumps into former student Kevin Coulson (Cory Michael Smith), who’s returned to Crosby manifesting many of his late mother Rachel’s (Rosemary DeWitt) bipolar characteristics. Deeply troubled and plagued with hallucinations, Kevin is a sobering reminder of the condition’s monstrous grip.

Consider the tremendously poignant conversation he has with Patty (Rachel Brosnahan), a childhood acquaintance whom he rescues from a fall into the marina. Assuming that she intentionally jumped, Kevin is taken back when she tells him it was an accident, and that she was only picking flowers to cheer herself up. “A couple of lousy flowers? Is that all it really takes for you?”, he asks, before becoming overwhelmed with emotion.

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Olive Kitteridge is a triumph of unhurried, episodic long-form storytelling. The fluid sense of time passing is key, and Cholodenko successfully charts the evolution of the characters via pivotal events (Christopher’s wedding, a violent hospital hold-up, Henry’s stroke) without making them seem like creaky plot turns.

She’s aided by long-time Coen brothers composer Carter Burwell, whose wistfully undulating score never overpowers the drama, and cinematographer Frederick Elmes, who gives the pastoral New England locations a fittingly homely lustre.

So phenomenal is McDormand as Olive that it’s truly difficult to imagine anyone other than her inhabiting the role. It’s even more impressive when you realise how much she’s underplaying, considerate of standing out from the stellar cast. She’s masterful at locating subtle shifts in Olive’s demeanour – those slivers of tenderness trapped inside the blunt, stormy facade, and those fleeting, almost miraculous snatches of humour that seize the viewer with surprise (particularly in the later portions with Bill Murray’s wealthy widower).

Affecting on many levels, Olive Kitteridge is another winner for HBO. It’s a compassionate, highly rewarding character study that trusts us to empathise with the demanding complexity of its flawed main character, not simply love her.

The Wrap

The Americans is going from strength to strength, slow-burning towards a possibly another game-changing finish this season…. Social media explosion over The Jinx’s finale was insane, we won’t see anything like it in a while… Ep 6 of Better Call Saul gave us a wonderful Jonathan Banks showcase, if not the greatest Mike E. backstory ever… Can’t wait to dig into Bosch, Amazon’s adaptation of Michael Connelly’s crime novels.

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