Dolores Claiborne (1995)

D: Taylor Hackford
S: Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Superbly directed and well acted melodrama from the novel by Stephen King (cleverly adapted by Tony Gilroy) charting the recollections of a New England widow (Kathy Bates) accused of murdering her long-time employer (Judy Parfitt). The incident brings her estranged daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) home for the first time in fifteen years. Their reunion raises questions not only about their relationship with one another, but with the troublesome past, especially because Dolores has been accused of murder before... of her husband and the child's father (David Strathairn). Egged on by a suspicious police investigator (Christopher Plummer), who also investigated the first death, conflict ensues, bringing painful truths to the surface.

For a film consisting mostly of flashbacks, Dolores Claiborne is an intensely involving and immediate story. Gilroy's script transforms the monologue of King's novel into a classic investigative thriller, largely through the invention of the character of the daughter. A not-so-subtle clue to its narrative structure is the fact that this character is now a crime reporter, and, in a nod to some Freudian psychobabble, this can also be read as the result of her own unconscious quest to uncover the truth about what happened to her father and why. As in all good drama, the exposition emerges through conflict though, and thus the many flashbacks are well meshed into this semi-whodunnit structure. As Bates narrates parts of the tale to Leigh, the latter gradually comes to face her inner demons, and, as a result, questions the basis of her attitudes towards both her mother and other people. Though the revelations themselves are fairly predictable and too familiar to be effective as social trope (though no doubt there will be those who will get mileage out of the evil male/spouse abuse material which eventually comes to occupy centre stage), Hackford's sublime direction, Bates' stunning performance, haunting cinematography by Gabriel Beristain, and an effective score by Danny Elfman make it riveting viewing from start to finish, and ultimately more interesting than its often TV-movieish subject matter suggests.

Bates provides the film with a very strong centre. Her characterisation is more complex and multi-layered than her Oscar-winning turn in a previous King adaptation, Misery, if also perhaps more subtle than some viewers will enjoy (fans of Misery). Playing her character at two distinctly different stages of her life allows the actor to explore many facets of her personality and its development. As the film goes on and the script begins to follow the changing hues of her relationships with others, Bates manages to build a powerful cumulative characterisation which is just as important and revealing as the murder mystery which anchors the plot. For her part Leigh also follows a character trajectory which provides insight into the psychological and emotional world of these two women, and though confined to the present-day portion of the scenario, good casting and a good performance from Ellen Muth as her younger incarnation keeps things dramatically even. Support from all of the cast is good, particularly Plummer and Parfitt. All of the characters are given enough depth to keep them interesting, and as the script slowly peels away layers of deceit and denial, the performances also grow richer.

Though script and performances are both important, it is Hackford's delicate direction which keeps the film together. From the cleverly realised transitions from present day to flashback to the gradual, subtle development of physical and psychological space between his characters, he finds a perfect cinematic rhythm to complement Gilroy's script and give his actors sufficient space to develop their portrayals. Without announcing his presence, Hackford's steady hand guides the film through difficult material without surrendering to the excess that melodrama seems to demand and a cursory glance at the subject matter would suggest is present. This is a mature, intelligent film which discerning viewers should find very rewarding, though those looking for a re-run of Rob Reiner's screamfest will be sorely disappointed. Dolores Claiborne is a considerably more sophisticated piece of work on all counts, and inevitably, alas, destined for a more limited circle of admirers.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.