“Like its heroine, Olive Kitteridge, the four-hour miniseries airing this Sunday and Monday on HBO, is quietly indomitable, more admirable than easily loveable, more likely to get under your skin than send a shock through your system,” begins Willa Paskin at Slate. “A decidedly not-warm wife, mother, and teacher, Olive (Frances McDormand) has a sharp tongue, a fast mind, a wicked temper, and a deep, seemingly biochemical sadness. However problematic the term may be, she is, in fact, a difficult woman, the sort of person who rarely looks up from what she is doing, even to receive a valentine. A math teacher at the public school in the small town of Crosby, Maine, where she was born and raised, she is the fearsome and fair type who gives deserving C’s…. She is immediately recognizable, though you are more likely to have encountered her in real life than on television.”
When McDormand was in Venice to receive, as Scott Roxborough noted in September for the Hollywood Reporter, the “Persol Tribute to Visionary honor at a gala ceremony attended by McDormand and her husband, and frequent collaborator, director Joel Coen,” Richard and Mary Corliss caught the miniseries, discussed it, and noted that it’s “directed by Lisa Cholodenko from playwright Jane Anderson’s script” and “is adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction.” Besides McDormand, it stars “Richard Jenkins as her husband Henry, John Gallagher Jr. as their son Christopher, Zoe Kazan as Denise Thibodeau and Bill Murray as Jack Kennison.” Richard Corliss was once again reminded that “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.”
Profiling McDormand for the New York Times, Frank Bruni notes that she “set the entire project in motion, acquiring the rights to the book more than five years ago, signing on as one of the main producers… Olive is her baby as nothing before it was… It’s also a statement of intent. She’s no longer going to wait for other people to bring her good parts. And she won’t emulate other actresses in her age range—she’s 57—and cast herself in the most flattering light possible. ‘It’s a subversive act,’ she said. And while she partly meant the subtlety of Olive, she mostly meant the showcase that it affords older actors playing older people with late-in-life worries. Olive is her answer to an industry and a society that she finds perverse in their fixation on youth.”
“Her eyes snapping with disdain, McDormand doesn’t skimp on the character’s cruelty,” writes the New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum, “but she’s also a sharp, even seductive presence, a force of candor among the mealymouthed and modern. When Henry gazes at her rump, wagging toward the kitchen, you get what he sees in her. Their marriage isn’t easy, and it’s often unenviable, but it has gravity, in both senses: Henry and Olive are defined by each other’s orbit.” Special mention goes to “Martha Wainwright, as the pianist Angela, whose songs inject episodes with emotion; and Peter Mullan (of Top of the Lake), who, as Olive’s teacher colleague, makes apple peeling sexy. The effect is something like a great cover of a Neil Young song: there’s a fresh verve to the lyrics, an openness as valid as the original’s blunt and mournful mode.”
“The story is almost whispered, embracingly told in a placid yet grandiose tone,” writes Celluloid Liberation Front for Indiewire. “HBO’s latest effort has in fact a strangely hypnotic quality to it, highly reminiscent of the melancholic ineluctability that the passing of time comes with and the bitter aftertaste it always leaves behind. We feel, almost smell, that uncomfortable and at the same time welcoming intimacy that families and communities can offer. It is its atmospheric element, rather than the strictly narrative one, that somehow exemplifies the miniseries’ gentle but probing essence.”
“There are many things that Olive Kitteridge gets right, but none so significant as how brilliantly it simultaneously captures the deep, pervasive stillness and the close, suffocating entanglement of small-town living,” writes Libby Hill at the AV Club.
“It looks stunning,” writes the Financial Times‘ Nigel Andrews, “with a sheeny realism gorgeous and nightmarish like a master copyist’s Edward Hopper. Hardly surprising: the cinematographer is David Lynch’s Frederick Elmes. McDormand herself is amazing. You really do need to go to Bergman—to the Liv Ullmanns or Ingrid Thulins of Ingmarworld—for a comparison.”
For Chuck Bowen, writing for Slant, Olive is “an honest tearjerker that treats its characters with respect, according them a great sense of wounded, tattered dignity.” More from Catherine Bray (HitFix), Esther Breger (New Republic), Tom Christie (Thompson on Hollywood), Robbie Collin (Telegraph, 4/5), Peter Debruge (Variety), Inkoo Kang (Voice), Jessica Kiang (Playlist, A-), David Rooney (Hollywood Reporter) and Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert.com).
Update: For Indiewire, Liz Shannon Miller talks with Cholodenko “about what kind of advantages you get when working for the second time with an actor, the Gone Girl-esque appetite for unlikeable women on screen and not giving Bill Murray any ammunition to use against her.”
Updates, 11/3: Olive Kitteridge is, “in its modest way,” writes Matt Zoller Seitz for Vulture, “a significant advance in television narrative, taking some of the flashback-flashforward devices that were deployed so brazenly in recent American TV series (including Orange is the New Black, season five of Breaking Bad, and season five of Arrested Development) and using them to split open scenes and sequences-in-progress and completely change what we were about to think or feel about them…. This is the sort of thing that novels have been doing for about a hundred years now, but that movies and TV series have often struggled with (mainly because they’re under tremendous pressure to be linear and to drive the plot forward constantly). For all these achievements and so many others, Olive Kitteridge is hugely satisfying, easily one of the best things I’ve seen on TV this year.”
If I had a magic dictionary and could permanently strike any word from the vocabulary of culture and criticism, it would be ‘likable.'” Time‘s James Poniewozik explains, and then: “In the end, Olive Kitteridge is a moving, draining, cathartic four-hour experience. It is emotionally intense, which can be tough to take but is the opposite of the likability approach to storytelling. ‘Likable’ is the opposite of intense. It’s easy, inoffensive and eventually forgettable.”