The Simple Life
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
HBO’s adaptation of Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge is absolutely phenomenal, a masterwork adaptation of a novel considered to be impossible to adapt. In the hands of Jane Anderson’s script and Lisa Cholodenko’s incredible direction, Olive Kitteridge revels in its striking simplicity that so cleverly hides the monumental complexities that lie within it. There really isn’t a beginning, a middle, and an end in Kitteridge. If you are looking for a straightforward plot structure, then you might come across as disappointed, even though I find that highly unlikely. Within this four-hour miniseries that might function the best if you watch all four episodes back to back, character is above and beyond everything else. Specifically the titular character, Olive Kitteridge, takes center stage and her tumult holds together all of the disparate threads with a formidable strength.
That strength comes from a unity of depression throughout the series, a melancholia seeping through the lives of each character connecting the story together. The most critical element of the series that makes it truly work is that it never judges any of its characters. Some of them are downright dumbfounding at moments, others are vapid, irritating, nauseating, even despicable. But there’s a humanity to each character that grounds everyone in reality. Olive is harsh, blunt, standoffish, and sometimes cruel. But the series never makes her seem one-dimensional at the expense of her own character or anyone else’s. She’s not kind, but that doesn’t make her an individual to despise. When her son Christopher accuses her of being absolutely awful as a mother, we can sympathize with his childhood while remaining understanding of Olive and why she was so harsh on her son. It wasn’t from a place of cruelty, it was simply her desire to ensure he didn’t become as soft as his father. It’s a difficult balance to pull off and Kitteridge does it with aplomb.
The performances in Kitteridge are astounding, from the titular main character to the smallest role at the periphery of the narrative. Frances McDormand commands the screen as Olive, her tough resilience in the face of depression as endearing as anything else. Her shell is so tough because she has created it not only as a buffer to the outside world, but also to the depression that she battles so ardently every single day of her life. So when she finally breaks and confesses her love for her husband Henry as he’s on his deathbed, it hits you right in the heart and lingers. She’s hard, but she’s not unfeeling. When those closest to her comment on how sheerly unlikeable she is, you see the subtle nuances in McDormand’s expressions lets you know how much that truly hurts her. Richard Jenkins imbues Henry with a keen sense of kindness, generosity, and affinity that triumphs over what arguably could be called a simplicity so profound that it borders on stupidity. He’s kind but he’s not capable of mighty ambition. It’s tough to make such a character endearing but Jenkins does it with aplomb. Bill Murray makes a slightly abrupt entrance into the story and performs the near-impossible task of making someone who likes Rush Limbaugh endearing. The supporting cast is absolutely excellent, with Zoe Kazan, Rosemarie DeWitt, Martha Wainwright, John Gallagher, Jr., Devin Druid, Jesse Plemons, and Peter Mullan providing exceptional pathos to their characters with the small amount of screen time they received.
The script traverses through a significant time period, starting out when Christopher is in high school and apparently writes terribly to his adulthood, where he ends up in a second marriage with children of his own. But the series never feels as if it’s barreling through time and that quiet effect of the progression of life is key to the series as a whole. Life isn’t always as bombastic and exciting as some assume it to be. The stagnation of time is critical to the story and its setting of a small town that never feels as if its progressed, even though so many of its inhabitants have gone far, far away from who they original were. The essence of small towns is incredibly difficult to capture for some reason, but Kitteridge is able to grasp that feeling of calm. claustrophobia, and frustration equivocally. Some found solace in the quiet and are able to live their entire lives in such solitude while others who had originally found some form of solace have long left it, longing for greener pastures and a sense of progression in their own lives.
Olive Kitteridge is quiet, reflective, sincere, and above all, not judgmental. There’s a significant sense of understanding imbued within its frame, as if it understands humanity at its very core. Only one scene in its four hours feels truly false, as if a cruel abandonment of the quietness at the story’s core, but even that is turned into an exploration of the human psyche. It’s just not very subtle. Depression in and of itself is a subject rarely explored with the nuance it requires, instead treated callously as something not worth truly caring about because it’s a systematic symptom of weakness. Or it’s taken as a precursor to madness. It’s truly neither in many cases. It’s a much quieter, softer, and punishing ordeal that may not be loud but it is excruciatingly painful. Depression has a horrifying ability to strip away your entire identity, leaving behind nothing but a former shell of who you were. It takes true mental fortitude to be able to build yourself up back to that former self and even more so to transcend it. Olive perseveres, but it is not without a cost and what a mighty cost it was.
Directed by: Lisa Cholodenko
Produced by: Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks, Frances McDormand, Jane Anderson, Steve Shareshian, David Coatsworth
Screenplay by: Jane Anderson
Based on: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Starring: Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Zoe Kazan, Rosemarie DeWitt, Martha Wainwright, John Gallagher Jr., Devin Druid, Jesse Plemons, Bill Murray, Peter Mullan
Music by: Carter Burwell
Cinematography: Frederick Elmes
Editing by: Jeffrey M. Werner
Production company: HBO Miniseries, Playtone, As Is
Running time: 233 minutes (divided into 4 episodes)
Image Courtesy: Flavorwire