“Olive Kitteridge,” March, 2021 (2014), DVD. We both very much liked this four-part series excepted from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. Starring Frances McDormand as the remarkably difficult and often unpleasant title character (she co-produced with Tom Hanks), she’s a high school math teacher with a heart of coal. It costars Richard Jenkins (another favorite of mine) as her caring and long-suffering yet complex pharmacist husband, and Bill Murray in a small but brilliant turn as a late-life emotional counterweight of a different sort. Murray’s work absolutely transformed the film. How they transformed her and Jenkins’ appearance over the 40 years covered by the film was nigh on to incredible.
Olive is angry and bitter, trapped in her nowhere Maine town, largely disdainful of her husband, her students, and her fellow townspeople, even if she gets it right about most of them. She longs for the depth of serious intellect and an understanding of the darkness of the soul, losing what seems to be her only hope of escape. Her son Christopher (John Gallagher), however, flees to California with an ice goddess of his own, while Jenkins’s Henry endures and sacrifices his imagined escape route to the greater good. All this is played against pop piano platitudes from Martha Wainwright’s lounge singer Angela. Murray’s arrival in the final episode upsets this dark applecart, as the story crafts a vision of surrealism versus mawkish melodrama and romantic claptrap. The writing, acting, and directing in this piece are first rate, albeit hard to watch and extremely painful sometimes.
You can see why McDormand was hellbent on playing this role. Her character is at once cruel, realistic, mean-spirited, stoic and deeply pained. Quite the pleasure for an actress of her chops. She, Jenkins, Murray, director Lisa Cholodenko, and screenwriter Jane Anderson all won Emmys for this one. Well deserved, all ‘round.