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Frances McDormand

Olive Kitteridge is a novel impossible to film. It’s a collection of 13 short stories, told out of chronological sequence, with changing protagonists and over 90 named characters, all of whom create a tangled web of history and loyalty, love and tragedy, pain and acceptance. It is a brilliant, involving tale, more than worthy of the Pulitzer Prize awarded to author Elizabeth Strout.

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It’s a novel that should not translate to film. And yet, HBO’s miniseries of the same name suggests otherwise. It focuses acutely on its eponymous lead, deftly portrayed by Frances McDormand. Shot with meticulous attention to detail by director Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right), the miniseries pares the sprawling source material down to something sparse and intimate, while maintaining the innate humanity of Strout’s words. The novel was a sprawling, yet intimate epic; the series stands, instead, as an epic of intimacy, digging deep into the marrow of human relationships.

Set in the fictional small town of Crosby, Maine, the series follows moments in the lives of a small cast of characters in the orbit of junior high teacher Olive, be they family, acquaintances, or students. The series understands perfectly what so many other stories about cute, quirky small towns miss: Like overgrown briar patches, the people of small towns grow together, forming unwieldy bonds that are impossible to untangle, often impenetrable from the outside, thanks to a prickly exterior that, under the right circumstances, still bear the fruits of human kindness beating away somewhere deep within. 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.

That inescapable undercurrent of pastoral life contributes to the haze of melancholy that hangs over the piece, underlined in part by the persistently overcast New England skies but owed more directly to Cholodenko’s precise directorial choices. She allows moments to breathe and characters time to ponder. There are silences that echo, leaving the audience to pore over their anxieties as the characters pore over theirs. Her direction often leaves a single character isolated and off-center, as in the photo above, while emptiness takes center stage, the hollowness in their chests manifested perfectly on-screen.

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McDormand—responsible for optioning the project and shepherding it to the screen—shines at its center, bringing soul and clear-cut empathy to the schoolteacher who could occasionally read as wholly frigid on the page. Olive herself is a complex character not so easily dismissed as simply antisocial or cantankerous. She has her own motivations and internal compass and is driven by her own involved set of demons. She is prickly, even unpleasant, but she is no monster. A character that will not be so easily compartmentalized, she is fascinating to watch. Olive does horrible things, and she does good things, and at all times, her reasons are clear, even as they leave the audience cringing.

Olive is coupled with her pharmacist husband Henry, portrayed by the supremely open and engaging Richard Jenkins. Together, McDormand and Jenkins project a nuanced and unconventional love that flies in the face of traditional romantic expectations, finding a warmth and sure-footedness in a facade that may seem cold and bitter. This love lies at the heart of what makes Olive Kitteridge such a beautiful piece of work. Rarely has the complicated story of lasting love been so aptly represented, as the series illustrates how true and abiding affection does not always present itself in tidy terms. Early in the series, both partners long for the affection and attention of another; hearts intractable, their minds are always searching for the solace of an escape route. The nuance enters as the series evidences its clear comprehension that love is human and malleable, and affection and commitment are not a zero sum game.

Beyond McDormand and Jenkins, Kitteridge is populated with a murderers’ row of gifted character actors, from recent prestige cable drama it-girl Ann Dowd, serving as a reliably amusing family friend, to the wonderful Zoe Kazan, playing a diaphanous and good-hearted employee in the pharmacy. There are no weak links in the deep cast, but it would be a mistake to overlook the contributions of two guest players in particular. Both Bill Murray, playing a somewhat stodgy, undeniably sad Kitteridge acquaintance, and Rosemarie DeWitt, portraying a deeply damaged, desperate single mother, resonate on-screen on another level. The characters emit a deeply rooted pain so tangible it practically hums.

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In fact, there are no characters represented that aren’t suffering from some crushing psychic weight upon their soul. Though such ubiquity of pain could, in the wrong hands, be too oppressive to stand or devolve into simple misery porn, Kitteridge manages to harness that pain into something palpable and universal—and sometimes even deeply funny. To suffer, to love, to fight, and to fail, the series seems to argue, is what life truly is. It’s a messy, unpleasant, difficult struggle. And it is up to each of us to decide if it is a battle we are equipped to fight to the end, as isolating as it might be. These people are all suffering, yes, but so are we. And because we are, we are not alone.