Olive Kitteridge is not a happy woman. In the first two minutes of this slow-paced, bleakly humorous HBO mini-series she is preparing to shoot herself in the glorious autumn woods of Maine, northeastern US. The series is based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Elizabeth Stout and directed by the acclaimed film maker Lisa Cholodenko.
Most of the rest of the series is a flashback to 25 years earlier, in the 1980s. Then she was a spiky middle-aged maths teacher in a small coastal town, living with her teenage son and her husband who she finds deeply irritating.
Olive (Frances McDormand) emerges as a difficult but deeply moral woman affecting dozens of lives with her hard, unsentimental practicality. She saves at least two lives although chronic misunderstanding grows from her lack of social graces or hypocrisy. Olive’s husband Henry (Richard Jenkins) is a gentle, sentimental pharmacist who tries to help and care for everyone who needs him — which turns out to be a fair chunk of the town.
Henry loves Olive deeply as she casually hurts him. In her harshness she seems better able to tackle the mental illnesses that run through their families and some of their friends and neighbours. He cannot bear other people’s pain and she cannot articulate jealousy and hurt. They cannot comprehend spiralling land prices or people who boast about profiting from the sale of a house. Their tradition demands that when terrible things happen, cleaning, cooking and feeding people, mending or building will see them through.
They are both a little old fashioned and struggle to understand Christopher, their bored, self-centred son who was such a sweet child. Desperate to escape small town life and equally inarticulate, he misses all that is worthwhile in his family and upbringing. The further he goes geographically the more trapped he is in his petulance and the misunderstanding he sees so clearly in his mother.
For all the scenery and beautiful wooden houses the story doesn’t really romanticise American life. Alcohol keeps the bar pianist/singer Angie (Martha Wainwright) singing in care homes. There are also murder, shocking poverty and violence, vile rich people and irresponsible working class people with guns. The series also reminds us that the sea can kill you if you slip.
Olive’s attitudes are partly shaped by generations of bitter experience and no help from anywhere but your neighbours. Then there are the indignities of getting old and care homes that put profit before people. It’s a tantalising story that leaves us to imagine the unfinished lives as it ends. It is so beautifully performed that it’s hard to leave the characters that shape worlds and prove there are many ways to be a good person.