Dolores Claiborne: Island of Misery

SOMETIMES, AN ACCIDENT CAN BE AN UNHAPPY WOMAN’S BEST FRIEND. 

During a critical scene between Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) and her abusive husband Joe (David Strathairn), she tells him that he’s likely to end up in Shawshank Prison. Fans of Stephen King will recognize this as a typical sign that the story takes place in his universe, a device he frequently uses in his books. The prison was obviously featured in the movie The Shawshank Redemption (1994), which according to the IMDb has become the most popular Stephen King adaptation ever made. It’s a good movie, but Dolores Claiborne is even better, topped only by The Shining (1980).

After being caught by the mailman just as she was about to deal her elderly, paralyzed employer Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt) a killing blow with a rolling pin, Dolores Claiborne finds herself under police investigation. Donovan had fallen down the stairs and died of her injuries before Dolores had the chance to finish her off. This isn’t the first time she’s the subject of a murder investigation and Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer) returns to the Maine island where she lives to make sure that this time Dolores serves time. Her daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a successful New York journalist, also comes back home to help her mother, but their relationship is not good for a number of reasons. As they’re forced to spend some time together in the house where Selena grew up, both women are frequently reminded of the past…

Horrifying emotional scars
This isn’t strictly speaking a horror movie, but one could argue that it isn’t far removed from the genre. The story deals with emotional scars that come across as horrifying, and there’s even a very disturbing hallucination that Selena has on the ferry from the island where she no longer can see her face in a mirror. There are many visual touches in the film, courtesy of cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, that makes it stand out from most of Taylor Hackford’s movies. The story is full of flashbacks that slowly reveal what a terrible influence Joe had on his family, how he ultimately died, and the truth about the relationship between Dolores and Vera. Hackford and Beristain seem to really enjoy coming up with various ways to start those flashbacks and we are frequently transported back and forth between the chilly, blue light of the present drama to the warmer colors of the past (not that those were the good old days). Visually and dramatically, the film reaches its high point during an eclipse where Dolores and Joe square off for the last time, and the look of the sky above them is even more intense than what plays out below. Hackford expertly keeps the pot boiling throughout the film; at times we may feel that we already understand certain plot points, but when they’re finally revealed or fully discussed we don’t mind. One obvious reason is the acting. Bates has declared this to be her favorite film; she got her breakthrough in another Stephen King adaptation, Misery (1990), and the writer became such a fan that he wrote ”Dolores Claiborne” with her in mind. She’s a tower of strength in a role that initially isn’t easy to love, but as we get to know this tough lady we realize what a quietly amazing feminist symbol she is.

Bates is ably supported by Leigh as the resentful daughter who has blocked out the worst part of her adolescence and Strathairn as the drunken father and husband. But apart from Bates, the actor who stands out the most is British stage veteran Parfitt as Vera, another woman with a tough surface that hides secrets. The scene where she sternly comforts Dolores and tells her what must be done is spellbinding.

Dolores Claiborne 1995-U.S. 131 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Taylor Hackford, Charles Mulvehill. Directed by Taylor Hackford. Screenplay: Tony Gilroy. Novel: Stephen King. Cinematography: Gabriel Beristain. Cast: Kathy Bates (Dolores Claiborne), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Selena St. George), Judy Parfitt (Vera Donovan), Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, Eric Bogosian… John C. Reilly.

Quote: “Sometimes, Dolores… sometimes, you have to be a high-riding bitch to survive. Sometimes, being a bitch is all a woman has to hang onto.” (Parfitt to Bates)

Last word: “My mother was very independent, very tough, very strong, certainly the overwhelming influence in my life. Tony Gilroy adapted the book and did an amazing thing. The Jennifer Jason Leigh character didn’t exist in the book. Only the past existed in the book. It opened with Dolores going into the police station, saying that she hadn’t killed her employer that day, but she did kill her husband 20 years earlier, and the remainder of the story was told by Dolores in flashback. Tony realized that wouldn’t be a very interesting cinematic story, so he created an original screenplay for half the film, and the other half was already there in the book, especially the character of Dolores, which was all Stephen King’s.” (Hackford, The Hollywood Interview)

 

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