The story goes that when Stephen King came to visit the set of Misery he was so impressed with Kathy Bates that he wrote the character of Dolores just for her. The book was quickly adapted into a wonderful film, with Bates in a lead role, the film that is sadly very underrated and didn't get the acclaim it deserves. Unlike most of King's work, Dolores Claiborne is not a horror film dealing with supernatural. However, the themes featured in the film - of domestic violence, abuse, growing old and dying are universally horrific.
The story takes place in small coastal town where Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) is accused of killing her employer - aging, mean and wealthy Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). Dolores' estranged daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is a journalist comes to visit her mother after years of not seeing her. We also see the flashbacks of Dolores being stuck in marriage to her abusive husband (David Strathairn) and her and her daughter slowly drifting apart.
There are a lot of themes in the movie - that of being an outcast, battling demons from the past, finding a kindred spirit in the most unlikely person and at the root of it all is a beautiful, feminist message. The three main women in the movie are fierce, complex and they stand united. Vera's lines in the film and her monologue about women sometimes needing to be ruthless in 'depressingly masculine world' is one of the most powerful and sadly accurate scenes I've ever seen in any movie.
All the women in Dolores Claiborne are up against something but they don't give up - they emerge victorious. Dolores takes a stand against her abusive husband. When he hits her her response is grabbing an axe and letting him know the next time he hits her, she will kill him. Selena has monumental issues but she still goes back to her home town because she knows she cannot leave her mother alone. And Vera? Vera refuses to live life - or die - the way everyone expects her to. She is the epitome of defiance.
The most overwhelming sense of dread in the movie is the reality of women having to fight every day, every moment for the basic dignity, security and survival. It's the unjust world filled with men that are handed the opportunities women have to work hard for. Dolores, Vera and Selena all face hardship, suffering and hard life because of what they experienced, what they were pushed to do and what that made them be - outcasts.
The movie is a very touching and powerful portrayal of motherhood with Dolores being able to survive the worst humiliation, but incapable of standing idly by as something is happening to her daughter. Everything she does, she does for Selena. I loved the scenes between Kathy Bates and young actress who played the young Selena and her scenes with Jennifer Jason Leigh which also had the same kind of grudging familiarity to them. Selena is a very interesting and unique character in her own right - in any other movie, when the truth comes out you would see a major break down scene but because Selena's entire life ever since she was thirteen was a major break down and she already suffered so much the truth cannot make her suffer more. She stands strong and does the only thing she can - supports her mother.
Tony Gilroy adapted the book for the screen and Taylor Hackford made a stunning adaptation - the flashbacks sometimes appear in the frame of the present scene and we get the sensation that we, just as Dolores, are witnessing this woman's past right before our eyes. The film moves very smoothly, uncovering the secrets gradually and throwing more doubts - what really happened to Joe? What really happened to Vera? Why is Selena so messed up?
The film has so many incredible and memorable scenes but there is one that is amazingly touching when we see Dolores caring for aging, aching Vera. Vera who spent her life being harsh and haughty hates her situation. She begins to sob hysterically, crushed by the fact that all she has is Dolores, everyone else hates her and all that waits for her is pain and death. Then Dolores brings her a porcelain figurine of a pig that also plays a tune. The figurine starts playing and we see Vera calm down and Dolores smiling. Such a small, intimate and profound act of kindness of bringing someone a momentary escape from their pain.
There are monsters in this movie, though - Dolores' repulsive husband and the whole mentality of the small town that passed sentence on Dolores years ago and forced her to live as a recluse. Don't think the men in the movie are all portrayed as villainous - there is sweet John C. Reilly and a righteous cop played by Christopher Plummer who is sure that Dolores killed her husband all those years ago so he is hell bent on putting her behind the bars. He just wants to do his job and to be fair all evidence points to Dolores.
interesting bit is that the only unusual element here -
which makes it stand out even more and adds to it being so memorable -
is that the key event of the movie happens during solar eclipse. The
whole scene is beautifully shot and the red sky above Maine coast line
is not a sight that is easy to forget.
Seeing how this movie failed to get awards acclaim and stories very similar to
it, directed in a manner that almost seems inspired by Dolores Claiborne went to
earn multiple nominations in recent years, even though they are not the first
ones telling stories of strong women in harsh realities, only shows that
perhaps cinema is deteriorating - show me a supporting actress
turn lately that matches that of Judy Parfitt in this movie. Kathy Bates herself calls her performance here her favorite and I'd lean toward choosing this one as my favorite of hers too. While Misery is a spectacular role, Bates gets to do so much more and show much wider range as Dolores, a woman who is forced to go to unimaginable lengths and to do that she must find the strength inside herself she never knew existed.
Dolores Claiborne is not an easy movie - it has some truly disturbing scenes and the psychological turmoil depicted here is quite overwhelming. It is however wonderfully crafted and told in a very unique way with the use of unreliable narrator, flashbacks blending with present day events and story reveals shown through the characters accessing their long forgotten, discarded or repressed memories. All of that makes it worth seeing but what makes it exceptional are the amazing performances.
Dolores Claiborne (1995, 132 min)
Plot: A big-city reporter travels to the small town where her mother has been arrested for the murder of an elderly woman that she works for as a maid.
Director: Taylor Hackford
Writers: Stephen King (book), Tony Gilroy (screenplay)
Stars: Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Plummer