“Dolores Claiborne” is, on the surface, not your typical Stephen King novel, and this is important to note before you begin watching this particular adaptation of his work. This cinematic treatment reunites him with the great Kathy Bates who won an Oscar for playing Annie Wilkes in “Misery,” but she’s not playing a deranged psycho this time around. Also, while much of King’s writings deal with terrifying supernatural powers and unspeakable terrors, the horror generated here comes from real life horrors no one should ever have to endure. In some ways, this makes it one of his more terrifying tales because it deals with the kind of horrible crimes we hope and pray never to experience first-hand. Having said this, it is clear how many of us can never be so lucky as to avoid the worst traumas humanity has to offer.
Bates plays the title character who, as “Dolores Claiborne” opens, is believed to have killed her rich employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). This crime immediately reminds the town of Little Tall Island in Maine when Dolores’ husband, Joe (David Strathairn), died twenty years ago under mysterious circumstances, and the general consensus was that Dolores killed him. Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), who had pursued the case against her back then is determined to put her behind bars this time and 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 over a decade.
The novel “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 director Taylor Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy have done here all the more impressive. They have taken Dolores’ unsettling story and have stretched it out into a character driven motion picture filled with various characters who have been fleshed out in unforgettably compelling ways. 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 which 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 drunk and abusive husband and of the vicious abuse she took from him in his endlessly drunken state. Director of photography Gabriel Beristain shoots this hideous past with such vivid colors to where he gives the scenes an innocent look which 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, the kind made to cover up the severe family dysfunction many would like to pretend does not exist.
For the record, King said he wrote the character of Dolores Claiborne with Kathy Bates in mind, and it is very hard to think of another actress who could have inhabited 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 here is 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 Leigh. She has gone to great physical and emotional lengths to portray a character throughout her long career, but here it looks like she is taking it easy. However, her character of Selena is no less challenging to portray than the others listed on her vast resume. 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. Leigh matches Bates’ performance scene for scene by showing how much Selena wants to forget the past, but she comes to see how her most repressed memories cannot stay below the surface forever.
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 portray to as it deals with abuse and molestation among other things, but Muth proves to be utterly convincing in making the young Selena deeply 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 is never 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, Vera Donovan, and their relationship runs much deeper than we see at first glance. And David Strathairn manages to flesh out his despicable character of Joe St. George to where he’s just slightly more than your average mean drunk.
Most of King’s novels deal with the horror of supernatural elements or ghosts and demons which haunt our nightmares. But “Dolores Claiborne,” much like “Stand by Me,” deals with the horrors of real life which we are never quick to confront unless we are put in a position where the awful truth can no longer be ignored. Perhaps the unsettling nature of this particular work by King is what kept many from checking out this motion picture when it arrived in movie theatres back in 1995, but those of us who were willing to dive into the dark side of things like myself did not deny ourselves a journey to the horrors this film has to offer. But now, 25 years later, this film fits in perfectly with a time which includes the Time’s Up movement as we are forced to realize we have thoughtlessly ignored the worst abuses made against other human beings for far too long. As a result, this particular King cinematic adaption plays even better than it did back when it was released.
* * * ½ out of * * * *