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'Olive Kitteridge' miniseries review: A great Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins star as Olive

Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins star as Olive and Henry Kitteridge in the new HBO mini-series "Olive Kitteridge." Photo Credit: TNS

THE MINISERIES "Olive Kitteridge"

WHEN|WHERE Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Olive Kitteridge (Frances McDormand) is a junior high school teacher in the fictional mid-coast Maine town of Crosby (think Camden), married to town pharmacist Henry (Richard Jenkins). She's a brittle, difficult character, but Henry loves her deeply. This is a portrait of their marriage over the years. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko ("The Kids Are All Right") and based on Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer-winning 2008 novel of the same name, "Olive" may look like a Maine setting but was shot in Gloucester, Mass. 

MY SAY McDormand's performance is one of those rare feats that tend to beggar efforts at finding exactly the right word of praise. Thus defeated, I'll settle for "spectacular."

Really, this is something to witness -- a singularly great actress nailing every scene, every word until the artifice of "acting" evaporates altogether, and a living human being magically appears. That sort of alchemy doesn't happen often, but it does here. McDormand will win an Emmy for this. Already, there's no contest.

But what about the miniseries? Cholodenko's direction is masterful, and so is the bleakly funny script by Jane Anderson, but they clearly have a vision that is both part of -- and separate from -- the source material. Those who esteem Strout's novel may have quibbles (many characters in the novel make no appearance here), so that probably means "Kitteridge" should be approached on its own terms.

Those are considerable, but, like Ollie herself, "Kitteridge" is initially standoffish and difficult to engage with. There's a Richard Linklater-ish pace and tone, of life unfolding slowly and sometimes formlessly. The plot points (such as they are) are essentially the plot points for all humanity: People live, people grow old, people die. But you will care, deeply. That's a guarantee.

To really love this wonderful film may require having known -- and perhaps loved -- someone as complicated as Ollie: flinty, tough, bruising, acerbic, smart, occassionally cruel, rarely kind, empathetic and anti-empathetic. She disdains the frailty of others because she disdains it in herself. She's a broken person -- permanently fractured by a long-ago tragedy -- who constantly self-repairs until she can't any longer. That's her tragedy, while in the opening moments, she cocks a pistol, preparing to end her life.

Meanwhile, the backdrop is Maine with its endless skies and endless winters. Now and then, a snatch of Mahler floats by -- Henry loves classical music, she hates it -- just to intensify the refrigeration effect. When the glorious summers roll in, even Ollie thaws out a bit.

"Kitteridge" is full of other pleasures, including a couple of dozen pitch-perfect performances. Jenkins is superb as the small-town pharmacist with the big heart and boundless tolerance; John Gallagher Jr., as their entitled, spineless son, Christopher, is as well. And even though he doesn't arrive until close to the end, Bill Murray's Jack Kennison catalyzes Ollie's -- and your -- emotional journey, and it's a powerful one, indeed.

BOTTOM LINE Great, really.

GRADE A+

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