VENICE – My goodness, but “Olive Kitteridge” makes creating great TV look as simple as following a recipe. Let's say you want to create a truly wonderful miniseries. A good place to start would be picking great source material that nevertheless comes without too much cultural baggage or a mouthy fandom. An excellent and recent Pulitzer winning novel by Elizabeth Strout would seem to fit the bill. You want great performances? Easy, let's employ some great leads. Frances McDormand, Richard Jenkins, Bill Murray and Zoe Kazan should do for starters. Oh, you want great support too? Fine, simply round out the cast with the likes of Peter Mullan, John Gallagher Jr. and Brady Corbet. Of course you'll need a director. Apparently Lisa Cholodenko of “The Kids Are All Right” fame is free. Perfect. Jeffrey M. Werner, the editor Cholodenko worked with on that self same film, is available too. And for your cinematographer, a huge coup: Frederick Elmes, who has shot a ton of David Lynch, Ang Lee and Jim Jarmusch pictures is on board. The cherry on top is Carter Burwell as composer.
The result of all these smart choices in putting together HBO's four-parter “Olive Kitteridge” is a perfect storm of talent, fine storytelling and beautiful direction, executed with consummate professionalism by a top notch craft and tech team. Of course, many's the time a dream team has been assembled that fails to live up to the sum of its parts, but “Olive Kitteridge” just sings on absolutely every level. As a miniseries premiering at a film festival, you might have thought it would need to work hard to live up to its big screen placement, but it's a piece of storytelling that seems to glide effortlessly into the fest and out-do plenty of more notionally cinematic work with deceptive ease. From the very first shot of the opening credits, as powdered sugar falls like snow in close up, every aspect of the production screams class, talent and intelligence. This is a team at the top of their game, all pulling in the same direction.
At the heart of the story is Olive (Frances McDormand), a brusque, no nonsense math teacher living with her pharmacist husband Henry (Richard Jenkins), a man of much sunnier disposition, in a small coastal community in Maine. McDormand will win awards for her performance; it's surely impossible for her not to. She turns on a dime from cranky to compassionate and you buy the transition every time. She's vulnerable and acerbic all at once. You sympathize with her pain, even when she brings it on herself. You identify with her even if you are nothing like her, and you like her even when she's being destructive or misguided. It's among McDormand's best performances, and that's saying something when you think about the stiff competition in that particular field.
Part of the reason we're able to regard Olive so fondly, despite not being a likable character in the traditional focus-group sense, is that we're often able to see her through Henry's eyes, which view her at her best and worst. Jenkins is superb playing this sweetheart of a man. Given to sentiment and brimming over with good intentions, his strong internalized sense of the way decent people ought to conduct themselves gives him a thread to follow through life. He is unnerved by deviations from his template of how things should be and takes enormous delight in young couple Denise (Zoe Kazan) and Henry Thibodeau (Brady Corbet) becoming a part of his life; there is something about how sweet the young people are together that seems to give him energy and confirm his traditional worldview. His attitude to Denise in particular is a peculiarly oblivious mixture of fatherly devotion and something stronger that somehow never comes across as creepy.
There is plenty of drama in “Olive Kitteridge,” but it's not soapy. It feels just like life, only compressed — we cover some 25 years over the quartet of episodes. Individual installments don't end on cliffhangers; each episode is a gracefully developed and resolved movement in a symphony that leaves you eager to experience the next one, rather than bereft following a narrative cut short. The four episodes elegantly track shifts in tone while retaining their overall unity. I don't suppose this is literally something the creators talked about, but for me, the tone of episode 1 feels like spring, episode 2 summer, episode 3 fall, and 4, inevitably, winter. I don't mean by this that all the happy stuff happens in 2 and the sad stuff in 4; it's more nuanced than that.
Without spooling the plot, episode 1 is the most hopeful in tone, and there's why I associate it with spring-like optimism — it's the chapter that is most brimming over with as yet unrealized possibilities. Episode 2 feels the most vivid; emotions run high. Episode 3 is, I think, the best and made me cry three times (and I'm not a big crier; “Bambi” just makes me crave venison). The reason I was crying over “Olive Kitteridge” was a rich and tender sense of life's passing cruelties — this episode's tragic elements are deeply felt. The final chapter is more removed, more austere, often bleak, yet brilliant. There are some parallels here with Mike Leigh's cyclical, seasonal look at marriage in “Another Year,” but I have to say I preferred “Olive Kitteridge.”
The story has been adapted from the novel with enormous intelligence and finesse by Jane Anderson (who also gets an exec producer credit) — not a huge name writer, but when you consider that she's scripted episodes of “The Wonder Years and “Mad Men,” you'll start to get a sense of the tone here. It's not an easy gig, adapting this novel into roughly four hours of screen-time. For one thing the novel is not constructed like a novel. It's more like a collection of short stories set in and around the same town and featuring the same characters. And yet the stories overlap and flow into each other in a way that a collection of short stories normally wouldn't. They sprawl, not only over 25 years, but across a vast cast of characters.
Wisely, the miniseries focuses on Olive and her immediate orbit. To attempt to cram everything in the novel into four hours would be impossible ad you'd end up with one of those overly faithful hotchpotches that is true to the letter rather than the spirit of the source. Instead, Anderson has gracefully filleted the meat of Olive and Henry's story, incorporating peripheral narratives where appropriate. It's beautifully done. Incidentally, if you're considering reading the novel, don't be put off by the somewhat chick-lit cover that graces several editions — it is a magnificent piece of writing. Fingers crossed the series will connect with viewers and bring Strout's novel to an even wider audience, as well as of course being a superlative piece of television in its own right.
“Olive Kitteridge” will air on HBO on Nov. 2 and 3.