IF YOU think Mad Men can be slow-moving sometimes, Olive Kitteridge, the HBO miniseries that kicked off on Sky Atlantic last night and concludes tonight, often takes such leisurely steps that it feels as if the clocks have stopped.
That’s not meant to be a criticism, by the way; the deliberate pacing allows you to focus on the small, telling details. Such as the bottle of washing-up liquid that sits near the Kitteridges’ kitchen sink. The brand is Joy.
Joy is the one thing missing as Olive (Frances McDormand), her pharmacist husband Henry (Richard Jenkins) and their teenage son Chris (Devin Druid) sit uneasily around the dinner table for the meals that punctuated the first of last night’s two back-to-back episodes. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book (of which I’d never heard up to now) comprising 13 interlinked short stories by Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge is all about the rich, colourful characters and the tiny, seemingly mundane moments of life that turn out to be of great, far-reaching significance.
Anchoring the whole thing, though by no means present in every scene, is Olive herself, magnificently played by McDormand. A schoolteacher in a small Maine town, she’s misanthropic, abrasive and seems to survey life, her own and everyone else’s, with a withering gaze that veers between amused bemusement and outright contempt.
She’s not immediately likeable — think Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David without the laughs — yet still capable of compassion, hauling the depressed Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt), the mother of one of her students, out of the pit of despair. She also has deep feelings for a fellow teacher, the suave, cool Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan). Just how deep we learn after a shattering incident near the end of the first episode.
Henry is the opposite: kindly, big-hearted and probably a bit of a sap. The storytelling in Olive Kitteridge is fractured; it opens with Olive in the present day, loading a bullet into a gun and about to kill herself, then flashes back 25 years to focus chiefly on Henry’s awkward devotion to/obsession with young widow Denise (Zoe Kazan), the receptionist at his pharmacy, who’s irritatingly simpering and babyish — a “ninny”, to use a favourite term of Olive, who nicknames her “the mouse”.
In the second hour, some years have passed. Henry has sold the pharmacy and Olive is retired but no less keen-eyed or sharp-tongued.
Their now grown-up son Chris is a podiatrist and about to marry into a rich, condescending family. Needless to say, Olive loathes all of them and they don’t think much of her (or of the homemade dress she sports at the wedding). Actually, Olive seems to actively dislike or despise everyone, including her own family, except a young man called Kevin (Cory Michael Smith), the son of Rachel, who committed suicide despite Olive’s intervention, and has now returned to his hometown.
He’s suffering from hallucinations — in one extraordinary scene that should be ridiculous but works brilliantly, he imagines Olive has an elephant’s head — and is intent on killing himself too, something to which Olive cottons on immediately.
The spectre of suicide and mental illness, including schizophrenia, hovers over Olive Kitteridge throughout. And yet, for all the discontent expressed by Olive, it’s shot through with moments of black, bleak humour.
The slack pace and offbeat structure might try some people’s patience, but the characters are intriguing and McDormand is superb.