Watching Lisa Cholodenko’s magnificent HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge, adapted from the wonderful Pulitzer Prize-winning novel-in-stories by Elizabeth Strout, I was full of glee: “They went full New England!” I said out loud. Because flinty Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins, playing Olive and her husband Henry, really sounded like they sort of, kind of came from Maine.
That said, I am only a native of the greater Boston area. I can pick out my Kennedys from my Wahlbergs, and I have a sense of the vagaries of New England’s pantheon of difficult-to-recreate accents overall, but I cannot figure out the real nuances of the Maine accent like a native.
In an effort to get the scoop on whose Maine accent was killer and whose wasn’t, I went to an authentic source: Caitlin Clark, 33, a college counselor and native of Spruce Head Island, Maine.
Over a short Skype session, Clark discussed the mysteries of the Maine accent. It’s not the same sound as Massachusetts — it has a bit of a “Cajun drawl, only northern.” She mentioned that there’s a little bit of a French thing going on (blame French Canada for that), and there’s a difference between the coastal Maine region (where Olive Kitteridge is set) and the interior region. Clark can’t remember an actor ever nailing the Maine accent; rather, it’s something like the Maine episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, where you get a true idea of what the area sounds like.
One obstacle, however, in trying to get a native Maine resident to judge how good the accents are in this miniseries is that there actually isn’t a ton of dialogue in Olive Kitteridge. “That’s totally real,” Clark said. “Mainers don’t talk that much.”
But we were able to analyze some accents. Zoe Kazan, as the pharmacist’s assistant, Denise, came in for the harshest drubbing: “That’s a typical Hollywood take, just dropping the ends of words like that,” said Clark. Jesse Plemons, known to fans of quality TV as Landry from Friday Night Lights and the creepy Todd from Breaking Bad, apparently just did his best Matt Damon imitation as the taciturn Jerry McCarthy (the results were a bit uncanny).
Overall, however, Clark declared it “not horrific. I’ve seen worse.” In a short, moving scene from the second episode, Rachel Brosnahan’s (House of Cards, Manhattan) accurate Maine accent stood out. “She was good,” said Clark. Bill Murray, on the other hand, who comes in towards the end, is “not really doing an accent. He’s the middle of the road.”
But the Kitteridge family — Gallagher Jr., Jenkins, and McDormand, nail the accent the most. Jenkins, as the pharmacist, is more clipped and patrician, “within the realm.” He sounds a bit like a Kennedy, but it works for the role. Accents are often about class, and an upper-middle-class pharmacist wouldn’t sound as strong as a local girl. In a searing fight scene, Gallagher Jr. and McDormand sound like accurate Mainers even while yelling.
Where Clark bestowed her biggest praise was for the physicality of McDormand. “That is some great body language showing an angry Maine woman,” she said. As she explained, Maine women aren’t known for being cuddly. They have a toughness about them. Clark could see it through some scenes played on a laptop over Skype, at not the greatest quality; and it’s true, overall, that McDormand is a fierce, fearsome, instantly recognizable, steely presence as Olive, the teacher who taught you hard lessons and maybe influenced your life, just a little bit.
So that’s what one Maine native picked up from a short, poor-quality sample of Olive Kitteridge. Your mileage may vary as you watch the show, but clearly Cholodenko and co. made a concerted effort to make the miniseries feel like New England, in accents and behaviors, and that’s one of the pleasures of this marvelous work.