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Rarely has a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel been turned into a satisfying HBO movie, but Olive Kitteridge is an exception. The lives of Olive and Henry Kitteridge in small-town Crosby, Maine, are as common as they are complex. The four-hour miniseries, spanning over forty years, proclaims that there is no such thing as a simple life.
With few words but excellent acting, Frances McDormand plumbs the emotional depths of blunt, stern, unsmiling Olive, who we dislike immediately. We’re shocked at her interactions with her husband, son, and the students in her junior-high math classes as she raises nearly impossible standards for others, despite her own stubborn lack of empathy. With flaws so apparent, she hardly seems like one who would dare demand perfection from others.
The story portrays Olive and Henry’s imperfect marriage, long and unfolding. Their union has been described as a “slow burn” in which time and tragedy disrupt a relationship and all but kill its underlying love. Each is disappointed with the other and looks for satisfaction elsewhere. Henry (Richard Jenkins), the small-town pharmacist, is attracted to wide-eyed Denise, who Olive calls “the mouse.” And Olive gravitates toward a fellow teacher, scruffy and lonely, who is as disappointed with life as she is. Any alternative to their marriage appears an equally poor substitute.
Other characters, disappointed both with themselves and others in their lives, demonstrate the same burden of imperfection. Olive’s hidden goodness appears in understanding and sometimes intervening in the troubled lives of others. As the movie ends, hope rises that this too-flawed, outspoken soul will find comfort.
There is depth of understanding in this dark portrayal of life that never offers easy answers. If one is looking for simple characters that easily transform themselves before the end, this movie will disappoint. However, to those realistic about human complexity or folks long married, the story rings true.
The cinematography adds to our emotional understanding of characters and a visual sense of place. Olive is a movie to watch more than once in order to unpack the layers of human emotion, tragedy, commitment, redemption, and finally peace. Thanks are due to Jane Anderson, who masterfully wrote the screenplay without diminishing Elizabeth Strout’s seminal novel. On disc February 10. (HBO)

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