Olive Kitteridge at Venice: An Our Town for Our Time

10 minute read

Olive Kitteridge, directed by Lisa Cholodenko from playwright Jane Anderson’s script, is adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction. It stars Frances McDormand as Olive, Richard Jenkins as her husband Henry, John Gallagher Jr. as their son Christopher, Zoe Kazan as Denise Thibodeau and Bill Murray as Jack Kennison. The movie, which will be shown on HBO Nov. 2nd and 3rd, had its world premiere this week at the Venice Film Festival, where we saw it and shared our thoughts, as follows.

MC: I had started reading the book in New York, just before leaving for the festival, and completed it the night before the screening. There are many ambitious films at Venice this year, but one of the richest and most rewarding was the movie that unspooled in my head as I came to know and live with the characters Strout created.

RC: It happens that the first screening of Olive Kitteridge, which concentrates on a couple married for some 40 years, was scheduled for the evening of our 45th wedding anniversary. Do we watch the movie for four hours, or have a delightful memorial dinner at some lovely Lido restaurant? Since I hadn’t read a page of the book, and Mary had been enraptured and haunted by it, I thought she should decide whether we go to the film and how long we stayed.

MC: We let the movie decide. If it grabbed Richard and didn’t seem to me like a betrayal of the book, we would stay. For decades at festivals, we’ve had a signal when a movie exasperates one or both of us: raising the five fingers of one hand, meaning that if it doesn’t drastically improve in the next five minutes, we leave.

RC: And after two minutes of Olive Kitteridge, you flashed the five!

MC: I was jolted by the opening scene of Frances McDormand as Olive in the woods, gun in hand, preparing to kill herself. I thought it announced a film that was going to turn all the delicate nuances of the novel into blatant, explosive statements. Yet things quickly calmed down; the storytelling got sharper and the characters soon bore a family resemblance to those in the book. We stayed for all four hours.

(READ: Ruth Reichl’s recommendation in TIME of Strout’s Olive Kitteridge)

RC: Yes, we happily binge-watched a miniseries, as we did with the much longer Breaking Bad, except this time in a theater in Italy. And watching it reminded me what I and many movie critics have acknowledged for years: that the finest realistic drama is on TV, where filmmakers can expand their visions to epic length while highlighting small, true moments that might get left on the cutting room floor in a two-hour movie. That’s true not only of recent American shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men but of European made-for-TV masterpieces of the 1980s: Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Kieslowski’s Decalogue and Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective. It follows that one of the most acute and lived-in works at the Venice Film Festival should be an HBO miniseries, even if it was only four hours.

MC: If it had been longer, it would have been truer to the book, which is a novel in the form of 13 related short stories about Olive, her husband Henry and the people of Crosby, Maine. This fictional locale, where lives and destinies intertwine, recalls earlier towns in novels (Winesburg, Ohio), plays (Grover’s Corners in Our Town) and films (Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life). The title of Strout’s book announces that Olive is the main character; and we soon realize that Henry is Crosby’s emotional anchor. But they are minor players in some of the stories, making Stroud’s point that everyone in Crosby is important, that each person has his or her own tale to tell, his or her own aching heart, filled with wistful dreams and small or crushing tragedies. I’d say that the HBO version is a good adaptation of a great book.

RC: In a book of 270 pages, there are, according to one computation, 94 characters. In fact, there are many more. The HBO film all but ignores some of Strout’s major secondary characters, if I can call them that, like Angie the piano player and the Harmon-Daisy-Bonnie triangle. This might have been a 13-part series, with one episode devoted to each of Stroud’s chapters. But we have to remember two truisms about novels made into films: 1. The book is also better, because it came first and because its prose can describe the inner workings of its characters. And 2. The movie isn’t the book. Filmmakers have to be able to follow their own impulses. Cholodenko and Anderson — and McDormand, who optioned the book and serves as an executive producer — decided that the way to streamline Olive Kitteridge was to focus on Olive Kitteridge.

MC: Among the topics of Discussion at the end of the book, presumably for teachers and students to mull over, is the question: “Do you like Olive Kitteridge as a person?” That’s a blunt way of synopsizing a complicated character. In an early scene Henry leaves her a Valentine’s Day card and is shocked to see she threw it in the garbage. Her curt reply: “I already read it.” Henry is one thing: a decent man with a kind thought and word for everyone in town. And Olive, a high school math teacher who gives most of her students C’s, is many things — not so much contradictions as variations on a species of New England righteousness. Henry would say of his neighbors that they are just humans struggling to do their best. Olive refers to them as dopes, saps and nuts.

(FIND: Frances McDormand in the Top 10 Coen Brothers moments)

RC: That’s Olive. She speaks her mind with a stern wit bred of her belief that life contains many hardships. That gives her a kind of radar for souls in torment, like Kevin Coulson (Cory Michael Smith), the one student she gave A���s to, and who has returned to Crosby to blow out his brains in the woods of the home where his Valium-addicted mother killed herself. Olive maneuvers Kevin into saving a life instead of taking one, and confides that her own father committed a shotgun suicide. Many Crosby lives end in abrupt violence; one character quotes the line of John Berryman (a suicide and the son of a suicide) to “Save us from shotguns & fathers’ suicides.” Other lives trail off pathetically in nursing homes. Olive is heroic because she faces these hard facts, and Henry is heroic because he knows the same small-town secrets but finds a way to smile through them.

MC: That doesn’t mean he is superficial, a blinkered optimist. Henry has his share of psychic aches, one of which may be his marriage to Olive. He also develops a crush on Denise, his assistant at the pharmacy, whom everyone calls mousy but whose innocent vitality appeals to an older man. His relationship to her is akin to Olive’s with her fellow teacher Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), who drives her to school each day; the puffs of a cigarette they share on a porch are as close as they come to acting on their mutual attraction. Olive and Henry both see the signs of the other’s possible liaison, but they don’t speak much of it until 20 years later, when Henry erupts: “You wouldn’t have lasted with your poet.” And Olive snaps back, “Or you with your mouse!”

RC: Henry can take Olive more or less in stride, but their son Christopher can’t. He sees her stern discipline as abuse, and later in life, when he’s become a podiatrist and has failed in his first marriage, shouts at Olive, “Admit it for once. You were a horrible mother.” From our perspective, we see that she was a caring mother with a harsh tongue. She misjudged her son’s ability to take what he dished out. A lot of people find Olive unbearable or, as the local kids call her, “a witch.” One of the few males who matches her in grouchiness is Jack Kennison, the Bill Murray character, whom Olive meets late in her life. Both have lost their spouses, and are living “in Hell.” Olive asks him, “Are you feelin’ poorly?” And Jack says, “Just soul-poor, Olive.” Thus, despite all their differences, they form an alliance of the soul-poor, the forlorn and bereft.

MC: The Olive of the book is heavy-set, more a Tyne Daly figure. Yet McDormand has the emotional weight to be faithful to Olive while lending the character her own gritty wisdom. The tight smile is familiar from her Marge Gunderson in Fargo. Marge had a brighter view of life, but both are women a moviegoer wouldn’t want to tangle with but do want to know. It’s an exceptional performance, and Cholodenko, who directed McDormand in Laurel Canyon and also did The Kids Are All Right, deserves a lot of the credit.

RC: I think that toward the end, when Henry is no longer a voice in the movie, it loses the lift of his affable sanctity. We have seen Olive through his eyes; if he can love her for all her foibles, we can surely appreciate and admire her, for all her tensile strength. I can’t imagine an actor who could convey Henry’s calm goodness, his preternatural forbearance, better than Jenkins. Would it be appropriate for me to observe that Jenkins married his current wife in August 1969, just a weekend before you and I were wed?

MC: It would not. But we could mention that when the Olive Kitteridge screening was over, just before midnight, we got in the local bus to go back to our hotel, the Hungaria, hoping to get a late bit of food. Suddenly the heavens opened in a deluge of biblical or comical proportions. Running from the bus to the Hungaria, we got drenched. The night clerk let us in, and said he could offer us sandwiches and wine, which we happily consumed in our room/

RC: I’d guess that Henry and Olive Kitteridge never had such a satisfying anniversary dinner. And a show.

The original version of this post misstated the dates that HBO will premiere Olive Kitteridge. It is Nov. 2nd and 3rd.

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