DOLORES CLAIBORNE (1995) ***
Movies made from Stephen King stories are a very mixed lot, whether they deal with horror, "psychology" or a combination. To my taste, successful films include "Carrie," "The Shining," "Christine," "Cujo," "Misery" (with Kathy Bates), "The Shawshank Redemption." Misses are numerous, the last one being the 1993 fiasco "Needful Things."
The movie opens in a small town in Maine, with what certainly looks like the murder of wealthy, old Vera (Judy Parfitt) by her housekeeper Dolores (Kathy Bates). Dolores' daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) hears of it in New York, and after an absence of 15 years decides to see her mother. Selena is a hotshot, driven magazine writer, a tense woman who drinks a lot, chain-smokes and pops pills.
She finds out that the locals not only take for granted that Dolores killed Vera, but also that she is strongly suspected of having done in her no-good, violent and boozing husband Joe (David Strathairn) years ago. This was never proved though. It rankles detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), about to retire with a perfect record of convictions, except Joe's case. He is hell-bent on proving Dolores guilty this time.
The movie is less of a thriller and an investigation than a nasty remembrance of things past as mother and daughter, strangers to each other, interact with increasing awkwardness, all the more so as neither will come out with questions or explanations.
Selena is a dour presence around Dolores. As it often happens when girls have to choose sides, she is, albeit unjustifiably, still loyal to the memory of her father, because Dolores had always shielded her from knowing the facts about him. A good, believable touch of dark irony.
The process used to tell the tal is a record-breaking number of flashbacks from the point of view of the two women. This works well although it eventually gets laborious and mechanical. Yet while "Dolores Claiborne" will not go down as a major contribution to cinema art, it is quite good.
What holds it together are the performances. Kathy Bates is in great form as the ill-married woman who slaved for ages to make a nest-egg for her daughter by working for socialite Vera, a cold, bossy, maniacally finicky employer. Cleverly, the film's script pivots on the two faces of Dolores -- the indentured servant and the gutsy, powerfully independent spirit.
Bates goes smoothly from one side to the other, from submissiveness to Joe or Vera to defiance, from sullenness to verbal cracks, from disheveled to neat in her maid's uniform.
Throughout the story there is a pronounced New England reserve on the part of most characters. Bates bolsters her (to me) convincing accent with colorful expressions. Some, like "cheese and crackers!" (for "Jesus Christ"!) imply a basic puritanism. Others, like "I've got my Sociable Security" remind us that Dolores is a simple woman of the people. For Bates, Leigh, Plummer and Parfitt, what is implied or unsaid is more important than what is openly stated.
How the movie develops I will not disclose, given the number of revelations --some predictable, others not-- that include abuse of sundry sorts and repressed memories. As the plot marches on doggedly, the acting remains consistent with the characters and keeps holding your attention. It is also helped by its authentic-looking background, the town and its environs.
Ambitious yet often overdone is the recurring symbolism. The Spanish name " Dolores " implies suffering, which is OK. But there is too much alternating use of dark and light skies or barren and summery landscapes. And an eclipse that gets a ham-handed treatment reminds me of how much more subtly Michelangelo Antonioni used his own eclipse in "L'Eclisse."
"Dolores Claiborne" reactivates director Hackford. After establishing his name with "An Officer and a Gentleman" (1982) he went on to lesser or little-noticed films, then switched to executive producer of movies that did not make the grade, including the briefly shown, way underrated "The Long Walk Home" (1990, with Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg).
In 1993 Hackford directed his first film in five years, "Bound by Honor." It was not a comeback, but "Dolores" is. It is also is a return to a meaty major role for Kathy Bates, her first since "Fried Green Tomatoes" (1991). There is, of course, no dearth of good roles these days for Jennifer Jason Leigh who, since "Single White Female" (1992) has shown so much talent and versatility in "Short Cuts," "The Hudsucker Proxy," and "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle."
All is not credible in "Dolores." There are some opaque passages and much cheating and manipulating the audience takes place, starting with the opening's assumed murder. While watching the picture you may not notice all its withholding of information, or that certain scenes are deliberately given a misleading context. Later you may wonder why Dolores' alibi was not presented to the authorities earlier or why her rapport with Vera was so hocus-pocused until the very end. Such are the tricks of movie-making. But that is after, and it still does not detract from the portrait of a memorable woman.