Review of Lisa Cholodenko’s Olive Kitteridge
Olive Kitteridge (2014). HBO miniseries. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Starring: Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, John Gallagher Jr., Zoe Kazan, Peter Mullan, and Rosemarie DeWitt.
Set in a small New England town, Jane Anderson’s adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s novel is a portrait of the eponymous Olive and her life and interactions. Lisa Cholodenko has transposed the tone of Strout’s novel into elegant, intelligent television, observing Olive and her neighbours with a cool wit and poignant compassion. Brusque and unsentimental, McDormand’s character is a schoolteacher married to the town pharmacist, Henry (Richard Jenkins), a quiet and compassionate man with whom she has a son, Chris (John Gallagher Jr.). There is nothing glamorous about Olive; she’s a tough teacher, and she serves her family dinners without niceties, plants her bulbs, walks her dog, and has few words of friendly greeting for anyone as she goes about her life. Henry is an affable member of the community and takes pride in dispensing pills and drugstore goods. He loves Olive, despite her curmudgeonly ways; in contrast, their son is awkward and sullen in response to her frequent rebukes.
Olive is the epitome of tough love, and she serves as a guide to the town and its secret sorrows. Her apparent lack of sentiment delivers harsh, clumsy truths: disappointment, depression, suicide. I was drawn into those tiny moments, glimmers, where a look or blink evokes deep and contradictory feelings. The colours of New England are echoed in Olive’s frumpy tweeds and sensible coats; she is part of the harsh Northeastern landscape, digging her garden, a woman of the land. She delivers asides to the uxorious Henry. As she strides about the town like an ancient earth goddess, she casts her critical gaze all around, her opinions as scathing as her general demeanour. Olive’s sensitivity is protected by a thick layer of contempt, irritation, and rudeness; her puritan propriety masks a disappointment and regret that emerges over the miniseries’ four episodes. In Part 3 she finally asks herself, “Who the hell do I think I am?” Strout’s original novel is composed of short stories that are linked together by Olive’s connection to the characters. Cholodenko takes the central tenet and emphasises her role as a schoolteacher in a small town, as a mother to a single child, and as Henry’s hyper-critical partner. For Olive and all the town’s depressives, niceness is unbearable, and Henry is nice.
Olive Kitteridge asks us to consider truth versus tact, and in the final part we sense that Olive has understood her own complexity, a struggle with herself and her desires. Her yearnings and sorrows are suggested and glimpsed. In love with a colleague, she chooses to stay in her marriage to Henry; common sense and rigour rule her life of moral certainty. Olive hates piety and hypocrisy, and in the final episodes her certainty collapses and reveals her profound vulnerability. McDormand inhabits her roles completely. Jane in Laurel Canyon and Marge in Fargo attest to a versatility that can morph easily into other ranges, and Olive, who has little or no sense of humour (and that’s her tragedy), reveals her range as a tragic actor. Her son’s wedding exposes her self-loathing, her dysfunction. She cannot do “nice”; her cruel gaze cuts through the pretensions of the in-laws and their guests at the wedding party and hints at her unconscious, incestuous maternal feelings.
The miniseries as a genre is perhaps the arthouse cinema of twenty-first-century television. Scaled down, it is intimate and introspective. Todd Haynes’ miniseries Mildred Pierce re-rendered Joan Crawford’s tragic noir figure as a struggling single mother with complex feelings. Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, made for the BBC, is a post-colonial, feminist-inflected police procedural drama; Campion’s reading makes it all about women in patriarchy, and it has been called a feminist Twin Peaks. When women write or direct complex protagonists, sexuality and motherhood are often placed centerfield, allowing for the delivery of untold stories and a raw, fresh mindscape. In these examples, the magic mix of director, cast, and setting offers a profound revision of women’s televisual roles in a feminist context.
Olive is unvarnished, unable to be anything other than herself: an ordinary, late middle-aged schoolteacher at the onset of retirement, a rarity in television. Cholodenko’s women protagonists are self-determined, serious, nonconformist, and brave; in Laurel Canyon (2002) McDormand plays a hedonistic, pot-smoking, sexually-active rock producer with an uptight son (Christian Bale), an hommage to Joni Mitchell’s album Women of the Canyon. Annette Bening’s character in The Kids are Alright (2010) is a neurotic, workaholic lesbian doctor, and in the same film Julianne Moore’s character challenges received notions of lesbian parenthood. In Cholodenko’s debut film High Art (1998) her lesbian characters explore the complexities of the art world. Cholodenko’s women characters are intelligent, engaged, and looking for a key to their own complex desires. Olive’s world unravels over the course of the miniseries, each of the four episodes requiring her to face the terror of death and of life. Stoic and heartbroken, she learns about love. This is the kind of TV feminists want to watch, the kind in which women of character and depth negotiate their multi-dimensional lives. Cholodenko’s beautifully drawn protagonists offer clues with which to reflect on our experience as bearers of our own gaze and meaning.
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