McDormand Triumphs in ‘Kitteridge' for HBO

Olive Kitteridge, the character, is a difficult woman to like, but it’s impossible not to get hooked on “Olive Kitteridge,” the two-part miniseries airing Sunday and Monday on HBO.

Olive, a character sculpted in flint by Frances McDormand (“Fargo”), is a woman at war with the world and herself. That world may be small in her little coastal Maine town – a desperate-to-please, victimized husband, Henry (Richard Jenkins, “Six Feet Under”); their son, Chris (John Gallagher Jr., “The Newsroom”) – but her resentment is monumental.

We don’t much like her from the outset, nor are we meant to in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book or its sublime TV adaptation by Jane Anderson. Olive does not suffer fools lightly, and she considers virtually everyone an insufferable fool. Her job as a teacher mirrors what she sees as her role in life: being the smartest person in any room.

We know something of what has caused Olive to be so antisocial: her father’s suicide. On one level, it’s clear that her inability to allow herself to feel the pain of his loss has led her to bottle up every other emotion as well – love, kindness, fear, empathy, happiness.

Yet simply knowing that doesn’t convey her full story for a long time. Olive is more complicated than we realize at first, but then we find ourselves watching McDormand’s face for just the smallest hints of a smile. They come from time to time and pull us into moments of hope that Olive may be liberated from her misanthropy, at least enough to treat her long-suffering husband and son more gently.

The hope the audience feels mirrors Henry’s eternal and sadly illogical optimism. Children and spouses of abusers often feel this way. Despite what can be years of empirical evidence that it will never happen, each tiny glimmer of humanity from an abuser – and Olive is a psychological abuser – can prompt enormous hope that the dark days are gone. But they rarely are, or at least, not for long.

Just as Olive’s profession mirrors her self-image, Henry’s job as the town pharmacist reflects his desire to make others feel better. Against all perceptible odds, he enjoys life, especially when he can help others. The problem with his marriage, we realize, is that Olive doesn’t want his help, or, seemingly, his love.

Both Henry and Olive seek some form of relief from their marriage, he through a platonic flirtation with drugstore employee Denise Thibodeau (an extraordinary Zoe Kazan, “Ruby Sparks”), and she with a nonsexual romance with self-destructive fellow teacher Jim O'Casey (Peter Mullan, “Top of the Lake”). But Henry and Olive are permanently bound to each other, for better or worse.

Anderson’s adaptation is superb, but it falls just short of making one pivotal incident completely believable late in the miniseries.

Lisa Cholodenko’s (“The Kids Are All Right”) direction elicits extraordinary performances on every level, beginning with McDormand and Jenkins, both of whom, along with the amazing Kazan, move to the head of next year’s Emmy list.

“Olive Kitteridge” explores Tolstoy’s notion that every family is unhappy in its own way, making the particular unhappiness of the Kitteridges universal through a magical combination of great direction, writing and performances. You'll not soon forget “Olive Kitteridge,” the woman or the miniseries.