Dolores Claiborne. 1995. Directed by Taylor Hackford. Screenplay by Tony Gilroy; based on the book of the same name by Stephen King.
Starring Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judy Parfitt, Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, Eric Bogosian, John C. Reilly, and Ellen Muth. Castle Rock Entertainment. Rated R. 132 minutes. Crime/Drama/Mystery
★★★★1/2For almost two decades now, I’ve been a voracious reader of Stephen King, a massive fan. While I’ve not yet read all of his work, I certainly have been doing my best to get it all in. But damned if the man just WON’T STOP WRITING! Absolutely a prolific author of modern times.
Sadly, though, not enough of King’s writing has translated well to the big screen. Some adaptations work – Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, The Mist, Needful Things – others like The Mangler, Dolan’s Cadillac, Maximum Overdrive, and more have fallen to the wayside, given halfhearted efforts, adapted poorly into screenplays which further evolve into poor films.
In opposition to the category of King works better off left unwatched, Dolores Claiborne is a delightful, chilling, and powerful film all at once. While tiny bits of the novel were left out, I think ultimately there’s beyond enough to keep the film rooted with the source material. Boasting what I believe to be one of Kathy Bates’ best performances, this is also one of the better movies made out of Stephen King’s work and remains so to this day.
Dolores Claiborne tells the story of the titular character, played by Kathy Bates, who lives on a small island in Maine. In her old age, she works for an elderly woman, Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt), as a maid. When the mailman walks in and finds Dolores kneeling over Vera, busted up from falling down the stairs, holding a heavy rolling pin, the police naturally suspect the worst.
But not simply for that fact. Nearly three decades earlier, her husband Joe St. George (David Strathairn) died under mysterious circumstances.
Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer) keeps his eye on Dolores all those years, so that when Vera dies he comes running. After Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), daughter of Dolores and Joe, arrives home following her mother’s arrest things from the past come back into the light.
Dolores holds all the secrets of their wretched family history. Once the police and Selena wear her down enough, she opens up and lets them flow.
For a fairly straightforward dramatic thriller, Dolores Claiborne has a decent amount of style. There are a few great dream-like scenes where Dolores herself sees the past and present meet, literally. And this is why I think Taylor Hackford’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel is very worthy of its source. Of course I do love the book more, as there are things which didn’t make it to the screen, but this is still wonderful.
Thematically and visually, this movie synchs up. With the idea of the past and present merging visually in the eyes of Dolores, particularly in that old house together with her daughter, the whole theme of the film has to do with the present reflecting the past – Dolores is ironically facing a murder charge for supposedly killing a woman, whom she did not actually kill, while almost thirty years before she DID cause her husband’s death. Great stuff. As I said, the fact this theme comes out visually under the direction of Hackford makes this better than most other dramatic thrillers out there.
One moment, not so much to do with this aspect but still a great visual, is directly following the moment when a grown-up Selena takes off drunk and on pills in her car, Dolores yelling after her – the sky at night turns into a wildly blood red colour and it’s almost a full-on horror style shot. Something very creepy and beautiful all at once about this brief sequence.
I’ve seen a few reviews of this movie stating Jennifer Jason Leigh plays too flat as Selena St. George. I cannot agree, not at all. She does have this very strange demeanour that some could view as maybe boring, or seeming that she looks bored. However, I think she does an amazing job portraying a young woman who has repressed the terrible things which happened to her as a girl. We don’t learn exactly what happened until late in the movie, but once we DO, it’s obvious how Leigh plays the character; it’s repression, not flat characterization, she is so clearly full of pain inside right from the beginning.
I cannot NOT mention the absolutely outstanding job Judy Parfitt does with the role of Vera Donovan. She honestly frightens the life out of me at a couple points, when Vera gets a little more sick, and then there are times when Vera is younger, before she’s sick, where I think Parfitt does so well making Vera come across as ruthless and utterly savage in her own way. Plus, Bates and Parfitt work great in their scenes together. There are some tough moments, but Parfitt proves how much a stage actor can dominate a film when given the correct material. Relatively unknown to filmgoers at the time, and even actors/directors in the film industry, she wallops this role and it is one I’ve never forgotten.
Along with Parfitt’s role, I think Stephen King’s novel and this film are great examples of an interesting feminist-leaning story. While it’s not all sun and roses or anything, I do believe the plot of Dolores Claiborne points out already evident hardships women have faced over the years, continuing on into what seems like eternity even at this juncture; we see how bad things were in Dolores and Vera’s times, that “sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto“. While people might try and look at this more as simply a drama with tons of thriller elements, there’s always been an incredibly evident strain of feminism in this movie, which is why I find it so powerful and disturbing at times personally. There are tough pieces in this story, however, it all comes to bear on the character of Dolores; a woman who was truly tested to the very limit and way beyond.
While there are other good performances, smaller ones from Christopher Plummer (always great) and a much bigger, nastier one from David Strathairn as Dolores’ abusive husband, it is truly Kathy Bates who shines brightest and hardest in this film. In fact, Stephen King has said himself that after dealing with Bates through the film version of Misery, he wrote the part of Dolores with her in mind. I can see why. The versatility of Bates is so unbelievably clear once you’ve watched two or three of her movies. Honestly, this is my favourite out of her entire, splendid career; that’s saying something.
In Dolores, Bates draws out the cold hard bitch in her. Simultaneously we can see so well how she became that cold and hard. There are times when the rage comes out of Dolores, from her sassy encounters with Detective Mackey (Plummer) to dealing with young assholes popping off shots at her house and heckling from the backs of their trucks. Then we’re also served up equal portions of the quiet, more sensitive side to Dolores, as she tries to protect herself while also trying to protect Selena from having to remember and confront the dark truths of their familial past. I feel for Dolores EVERY STEP OF THE WAY, every single one. There’s an incredible wealth of range in Bates and this performance goes through so many different emotions and feelings, it’s unbelievably hard for me personally to shake Dolores Claiborne for days and days after each time I watch it. Not too many films out of each year where a performance strikes me so clear and hard as this one.
Absolutely a 4.5 out of 5 star film for me. I think had they included a few more pieces of the novel I would’ve called this flawless, however, there’s one particularly key moment in the novel I wish they could have included; I think I understand why they chose not to, still, I really long to see that because it’d be great to watch it link up with another adaptation of King’s work should there ever be one (apparently Gerald’s Game is going to be made soon; that’s my favourite King novel).
Either way, this is an incredible piece of film. Taylor Hackford gives us one of the best and definitely one of the more faithful adaptations of Stephen King we’re likely to ever see on the big screen. With a major performance from Kathy Bates, as well as an incredibly emotionally touching, disturbing, and exciting story, this is a classic from the 1990s perhaps not enough people have seen.
If you haven’t yet, catch a copy and enjoy every last bit of this wonderful movie!