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Film Review: Dolores Claiborne

Starring: Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judy Parfitt
Directed By: Taylor Hackford

Dolores Claiborne (1995) is gripping and meticulously structured, its multiple subplots held together by yet another screen bursting performance from Kathy Bates.

House maid Dolores’ (Kathy Bates) arrest for the apparent murder of her elderly, cankerous and wealthy employer Vera (Judy Parfitt) provides the premise, though the actual story branches off to incorporate several different subplots, principally one involving the return of Dolores’ estranged daughter, New York journalist Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) after fifteen years of absence, and the suggestion that her beleaguered mother may have already killed before.

Shay Cunliffe’s costumes infuse the atmospheric cross-cutting of Taylor Hackford’s direction. With filters employed to represent different eras of the story, such as cold blue for the present and a warm orangey glow for the past, Cunliffe adds to the clarity by broadly varying her costume choices, chiefly for Dolores, Selena and investigating cop John Mackey (Christopher Plummer).

Dolores wears flowery cotton dresses as she segues from homemaker to victim to survivor. Later her clothes are purely for warmth against the icy Maine winds, a combination of straight leg trousers and shapeless quilted coats, with just the merest hint of a floral top underneath as Dolores tries desperately to preserve an ounce of her femininity.

However her clothes are not necessarily decade specific. This gives the film a slightly surrealist quality. If it was not for obvious indicators like cars and technology; it might be set at any time during the twentieth century. Along with her abusive husband Joe (David Strathairn) in his flannel shirt and loose cotton pants, Dolores’ garments could be from the 1940s, Joe’s even earlier.

Likewise Vera aided by her bygone lady of the manor impudence and penchant for afternoon cocktails resembles the idle rich of the 1920s. With Dolores in a maid’s outfit for most of the flashbacks, a work ensemble that has barely changed in its classic form for over a century, this is exactly how long her miserable life could have lasted. In reality Dolores’ suffering occurs over no more than twenty years. Yet to follow the harrowing story, the constant wretched agony she endures every single day, it may as well be a hundred.

Stephen King is a master plotter. Too often overlooked as a pulp horror serialist, his steady pacing of narrative set-ups and pay-offs are always satisfying. Adapted here by capable screenwriter Tony Gilroy, King’s continuous narrative novel of the same name, specifically the journey of its empathic, tough as old boots title character, stands up as one of his finest literary achievements.

With Dolores, Kathy Bates has found an even meatier role than psychopath Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990, another King adaptation). Outwardly antagonistic, sarcastic and downright brittle, she has a fragile, unselfish heart that must be kept locked away to avoid being broken. Only in a one pivotal scene with the marvellous Judy Parfitt as whirlwind Vera does she let go.

Dolores’ strength does not come from within, it comes from circumstance. She is tough because the world has made her that way. She does not dwell or reflect; she toils and punishes herself to avoid inverse contemplation. With no self worth, Dolores can only help others, like her daughter and Vera, because she considers her own life to be worthless independent from them. Bates portrays this complicated persona with pain in her eyes and years of torment etched on her skin. As vocal as Dolores is she never says more than when she is silent.

A patient and mature thriller featuring a protagonist fascinating in her agony; most films you root for the main character, here you practically beg that she finds happiness or, at the very least, peace.© 2009 Im

© 2010 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.