The Films of 2014: Olive Kitteridge

My best-films-of-the-year list is coming soon—it will be a little later than usual, in part because I’m still catching up on odds and ends and other things from earlier in the year that I’ve missed.  One of these is Olive Kitteridge, Lisa Cholodenko’s adaptation of the Elizabeth Strout novel, which runs just a hair under four hours and recently aired as a miniseries on HBO.  The leisurely pace of the miniseries format suits the film, which ranges across some twenty-five years in the lives of its characters.  It’s a story that would certainly have suffered from being shoehorned into 125 minutes.  And so, as with last year’s Behind the Candelabra and 2011’s Mildred Pierce, I commend HBO for getting this material out there.  (At the same time I worry that as cable TV continues to take these kinds of character-driven projects under its wing they may end up disappearing from the big screen altogether.)   

Olive Kitteridge is anchored by one of the best performances to be found on a screen of any size in 2014.  Frances McDormand’s Olive could be the East Coast cousin of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, the North Dakota police chief McDormand played so memorably in 1996 (and for which she won an Academy Award).  There’s a bit of Marge’s efficiency and grit in Olive, but Olive is saltier and harder edged, and as blunt as a rolling pin.  She’s also given to moments of quiet, impulsive malice, as when, at her son’s wedding, she overhears her daughter-in-law speaking ill of her and retaliates by stealing one of her earrings.  Olive’s steady bitterness is off-set by the easy warmth of her husband Henry (Richard Jenkins), whose friendliness to others—especially those who are young, female, and pretty—at times appears to be motivated by a desire for the affection and gratitude that Olive denies him.  As the film swoops and dips back and forth in time from the 1980s (when Olive teaches math and Henry presides over the local pharmacy) to the early 2000s (when they’ve retired and their son is about to embark on a second marriage), we’re shown the intimate details of the life that Henry and Olive have made together.  We also glimpse the lives of the friends and neighbors who populate the small town on the coast of Maine where Olive and Henry live. 

With few exceptions, theirs are lives clouded by depression and loneliness, thwarted hopes and frustrated ambitions.  But they’re accorded a dignity and grace that, in the film’s most beautifully realized moments, comes to feel transcendent.  In her previous film, The Kids Are All Right, Cholodenko showed a fine talent for rendering the subtle contours of a longtime marriage.  She deals with similar material here but she’s in even better form, and the expansive length of Olive Kitteridge allows the characters (and the actors) ample breathing room.  The performances are lived-in, relaxed, and deceptively physical.  Richard Jenkins turns in fine work as Henry, and Bill Murray, who appears late in the film in a smaller role, is extraordinary.  But it’s clear that this is McDormand’s film, and she carries it effortlessly.  Very highly recommended.

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