“Dolores Claiborne” is not your typical Stephen King story, and it’s important to know that before watching this particular adaptation of his work. It reunites him with the great Kathy Bates who previously won an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” but she’s not playing a deranged psycho here. Also, while much of King’s work deals with terrifying supernatural powers and unspeakable terrors, the horror generated from this story comes from real life. In some ways, that makes it one of his more terrifying tales because it deals with the kind of horror we hope and pray never happens to us or those we love.
Bates plays the title character that, as the movie opens, is said to have killed her rich employer Vera Donovan. This crime immediately reminds the town of when her husband died 20 years ago under mysterious, and the general consensus was that Dolores killed him. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who had pursued that case against Dolores, is determined this time to put her in the slammer for good. Into this mix comes Dolores’ daughter Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a big time reporter who arrives to defend her mother despite the two of them having been estranged for a decade.
The book of “Dolores Claiborne” was essentially one long monologue as the story was written entirely from the title character’s point of view. This makes the work that director Taylor Hackford and screenwriters Tony Gilroy have done here all the more impressive. They take Claiborne’s story and stretch it out into a character driven movie with various characters fleshed out through different perspectives, and each one is compelling in their own way. None of these characters, even that drunken lout of a husband and father, are one-dimensional or throwaway caricatures. Each one is complex and they take unexpected directions that might seem jarring at first but eventually make sense in the large scheme of things.
The plot shifts back and forth in time as we flashback to when Dolores lived with her husband Joe St. George and daughter Selena, and of the vicious abuse she took from him in his endlessly drunken state. Director of photography Gabriel Beristain shoots the past with vivid colors which give the scenes an innocent look that is soon contrasted with horrible violence. It almost acts as a façade for how the past was seen as if it were some sort of Norman Rockwell painting that is unable to cover up the severe family dysfunction on display.
Gabriel films the present day with a cool blue tone which illustrates how the intervening years have done their wear and tear to the coastal town of Maine where Dolores lives and works. This tone also highlights the physical and emotional damage time and events have had on the main characters. Still, they have a strong spirit within them that forces them to soldier on.
Stephen King has said for the record that he wrote “Dolores Claiborne” with Kathy Bates in mind, and it’s very hard to think of another actress who could have taken on this role. Stripped of any false glamour, Bates takes her character from being a victim to one who understandably takes matters into her own hands. Her acting remains flawless and compelling, and we root for her even though her actions have devastating moral implications.
When you look at her overall body of work, this movie almost seems like a walk in the park for Jennifer Jason Leigh. She has gone to great physical and emotional lengths to portray a character, but here it looks like she’s taking it easy. However, her character is no less challenging to play than most others she has portrayed. Selena is not easily likable, but she has to be empathetic because the viewer slowly starts to see how her innocence was irrevocably and unforgivably destroyed. Jennifer matches Bates’ performance scene for scene by showing how much she wants to forget the past, but even she can’t keep her most repressed memories from coming to the surface.
Special attention also needs to be paid to Ellen Muth who portrays Selena as a little girl. This is not the kind of role parents want their children to be exposed to. Dealing with unsettling themes like molestation is not something people want to tell their children right away. But Ellen is convincing in making Selena understandably distraught and confused by actions no child should ever have to be put through.
There’s also a bevy of excellent performances from the rest of the cast as well. Christopher Plummer, who’s never really bad in anything, is memorable as the relentless Detective John Mackey. This could have been a throwaway role, but Plummer makes Mackey a complex character to where you question whether his determination is based more on personal revenge than justice. Judy Parfitt is unbearably domineering as Dolores’ wealthy employer, and their relationship runs much deeper than at first glance. And David Strathairn manages to flesh out his despicable character of Joe St. George to where he’s slightly more than just a mean drunk.
“Dolores Claiborne” isn’t as well-known as other Stephen King adaptations probably because the audience was expecting something else entirely. It’s also not exactly a fun movie as it plumbs the depths of what extremes people will go to protect the ones they love. Regardless, it is rewarding for those who love powerful dramas with great acting, and this one has it in spades. If you’re a fan of either Bates or Leigh, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
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