Near flawless in execution while filled with rarely seen intelligence and complexity, the HBO miniseries “Olive Kitteridge” plumbs the depths of the seemingly mundane and finds cruelty, resentment, dogged insecurity and finally, if not hope, then some level of honesty about life’s attraction.
Produced by and starring Oscar winner Frances McDormand (“Fargo”), and directed with a sure hand by Lisa Chodolenko (“The Kids Are All Right”), this is the sort of story that rarely gets made into a film because it lacks broad explosiveness and defies category. It is a tale of small lives led poorly in a small town, but when put under the microscope, the emotional shifts within those lives feel seismic.
McDormand plays the title character, a thorny, caustic school teacher in a small coastal town in Maine. She’s married to a loving, milquetoast pharmacist named Henry (Richard Jenkins, superbly low-key), whom she abuses mercilessly. They have a son named Christopher (Devin Druid while young, then John Gallagher Jr.), who spends his entire life recovering from his parents.
As the film — which is broken into distinct sections — begins, Olive is obviously planning to kill herself in the woods, loading a gun after laying out a picnic blanket with a goodbye note in it. The specter of suicide, of escape from life’s pain, looms over the entire film.
Before the trigger is pulled, the film travels back decades and the journey begins with Olive brusquely throwing away her husband’s Valentine’s Day card. Olive’s “candor” with others is quickly established — she basically looks down on everyone and has strong opinions about everything. Little background is given beyond the suicide of Olive’s father, but most of us have met someone like Olive, so as shiver-inducing as she is, she’s believable.
Storylines come and go. Henry hires a new girl at the pharmacy, a bubbly young innocent named Denise (Zoe Kazan), whom he becomes dazzled by and protective of. Meanwhile, Olive is having some sort of dalliance with a fellow teacher (Peter Mullan), a cynical drinker, so she has to have some heart inside that hardened chest.
That heart shows itself when she tries to rouse the bipolar mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) of one of her students, and again, years later, when she dissuades that student, now grown, from killing himself. But most of the time Olive is, as she describes herself in a confessional moment, “a beast.”
The film has been adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Elizabeth Strout, and screenwriter Jane Anderson artfully weaves comic moments, tart commentary, aching emotion and even action scenes through 25 years of Olive’s brittle life.
And as in any life, people pass through — some stay, others have an impact and then fade. Somewhat ingeniously, a cocktail singer (Martha Wainwright) pops up time and again to lend color (literally at one hallucinated point where her piano becomes a jungle). For a story about everyday lives, this film is pretty inventive.
That invention includes Bill Murray showing up as a frenemy for Olive in the final act, another soul trying to figure out what just happened over the past six decades and what to do with what’s left. It’s a good question, one any baby boomer should recognize at this point. “Olive Kitteridge” leaves you believing in, and grasping for, an answer.
9 p.m. Sunday