Some fans of Stephen King's horror fiction--stuff he cranks out at a frightening rate--will probably see Dolores Claiborne as another serving of King Lite. The novel, and Taylor Hackford's radically altered movie version of it, are decidedly non-supernatural and non-gory.
Here, in fact, we behold the bestselling Mr. King in his "serious writer" state of mind--less interested in slavering dogs belched up from hell than in the dynamics of dysfunctional families, less inclined to haunt a hotel with killer demons than to scatter some repressed childhood memories around a ramshackle house in Maine.
Why, you could probably read Dolores aloud to the new Republican Congress and no one would try to cut off funding to public libraries. No one would even run from the theater.
But that doesn't mean this well-made commercial thriller lacks punch or drama or sensation. On the contrary, it's jam-packed with the kind of vivid attractions huge audiences found in King's equally earthbound hit Misery, a movie that still makes a lot of folks' ankles twinge just thinking about Kathy Bates and that sledgehammer.
Guess what? Kathy's back in King country.
In an era of pretty faces and pretty lame acts, this fine actress cuts against the grain. She parlayed Misery into a well-deserved Oscar, and she has even more character to explore in Dolores. It's an absolute pleasure to watch her beautifully detailed work.
For the eleven Americans who don't hang on King's every word, this title character is, to put it gently, the most eccentric inhabitant of the remote Maine village of Little Tall Island. Stubborn and fierce, Dolores has worked for 22 years as a housemaid and nurse to the only other woman in town who could put up with her, a demanding, gin-addled aristocrat named Vera Donovan. When the infirm Vera dies in the movie's first scene, suspicions are aroused. Twenty years earlier, we come to learn, Dolores's boozy fisherman husband, Joe St. George, expired in an equally mysterious fashion. Like clockwork, a flinty old detective with a long memory suddenly becomes the most inquisitive man in Maine.
Feel that pot starting to boil? Of course you do. But screenwriter Tony Gilroy has performed a major renovation on King's original. Extended monologues don't make very good movies, so Gilroy has developed a second major character, one who got short shrift in print, as a foil. Dolores Claiborne hasn't seen her estranged daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), for fifteen years. But when the trouble comes, Selena--now a hardbitten magazine journalist--comes home.
They make quite a pair, mother and daughter. When we first see them, unhappily reunited in the weather-beaten family shack, both are bitter, both know their way around a quart of Scotch, both have a taste for verbally scorching their adversaries. "Sometimes," Dolores spits, "bein' a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to." It's an oath that suits them both.
But Selena's homecoming, the old house and Mom's sour recollections soon start to tell another story. In a slick, artful series of flashbacks, director Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds) reveals the other side of Dolores Claiborne--a mother as self-sacrificial as Stella Dallas or Mildred Pierce--and the long-buried traumas that have turned Selena into what she is today: a frazzled hard case with six or seven kinds of tranquilizers in her carry-on.
Can redemption loom on the bay's horizon?
While we ponder that, veteran Canadian character man Christopher Plummer lays on just the right touch of obsessive vengeance as the dogged detective John Mackey; Judy Parfitt as Vera is the picture of world-weary decadence; and David Strathairn, ordinarily the gentlest of souls on screen, plays the drunken, abusive Joe St. George with poisonous glee.
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Finally, we're reminded that all families have their unmentionable demons. But not all families see them brought to light with this much elegance and power. Hackford's centerpiece, showy as hell and quite beautiful to behold, is an eerie reproduction of the 1975 solar eclipse, during which we see Dolores Claiborne's oldest secret laid bare at last while sailboats ply the harbor beyond. I don't know how Hackford and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain brought off their light-to-dark-to-light effects, but the entire sequence suits the drama of the moment perfectly. Please don't wait for videotape to see it.
Special effects and family melodrama prop up Dolores Claiborne wherever necessary, but the movie still rests on the formidable back of Kathy Bates. In bridging two eras, she actually portrays two Doloreses, and the tension between them is what gives the movie its texture. Fresh from her triumph as Dorothy Parker, Jason Leigh is effective, too, but the grave, multifaceted Bates wins the day (and the night) here.
Call this King Lite if you will, hardcore horror buffs. But sometimes the scariest things are simplest--and straight from the human heart.