Dolores Claiborne - King's Corner Review
Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film and TV adaptations of Stephen King's novels, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.
Prior to the 1990's the majority of Stephen King's novels were male centric as female characters predominantly played supporting or background roles. Even though Carrie White was the main character in the novel that launched his career and the likes of Donna Trenton in 'Cujo' and Charlie McGee in 'Firestarter' featured prominently in their respective stories, most of his books featured a male character in the lead. It wasn't until the late 80's/early 90's when the likes of 'Misery' (which was more of a two hander) and 'Gerald's Game' were released that King began writing more stories from a woman's perspective. He openly recognised this shortcoming in an interview with Fangoria in 1996 when he said, "It went back to thing of being interested in women and wanting to try and do away with the male protagonist for a while and go back to where I was at the beginning with Carrie, only to try and do it better, with a little more maturity."
Written as part of what was known as 'In the Path of the Eclipse' alongside 'Gerald's Game', 'Dolores Claiborne' is the second of a trilogy of books (alongside 'Rose Madder') about female empowerment in the face of male oppression. It follows a woman who is accused of murdering her employer years after she faced similar accusations over the death of her husband. Written as what can be described as one long monologue, the novel features no chapters, double-spacing between paragraphs, or other section breaks as it is told from Dolores' perspective. In an interview with On the Issues King said that he based the novel on his mother who, like Dolores, was a single mother which gave him an understanding of how to write a character like her, "I see her. I hear her voice. I know how her hands move."
Director: Taylor Hackford
Starring: Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, Judy Parfitt
Written by: Tony Gilroy
Produced by: Taylor Hackford, Charles Mulvehill
Cinematography by: Gabriel Beristain
Original Score by: Danny Elfman
A big city reporter travels to a small town where her mother has been arrested for the murder of an elderly woman for whom she worked as a housekeeper.
The novel proved to be both a critical and commercial success leading to a familiar face in the form of Castle Rock productions attaining the rights to adapting the novel. Prior to 'Dolores Claiborne' the company had adapted 'Misery', 'Needful Things' and 'The Shawshank Redemption' to varying degrees of success. With the majority of King's work turning away from the supernatural and becoming more grounded in the 90's so too did the on screen adaptations for the most part. Tasked with the difficult task of adapting what essentially is a stream of consciousness, Director Taylor Hackford shot the film in Nova Scotia which doubled for Little Tall Island in Maine.
The film opens in a frantic and blunt manner with Dolores (played by Kathy Bates) arguing with her employer Vera (played by Judy Parfitt) at the top of the stairs of her grand house. Suddenly Vera hurtles down the stairs and in her panic (through a series of quick cuts) to seemingly finish her off Dolores looks for a weapon in the kitchen to finish off her boss. As she raises a rolling pin above her head to put Vera out of her misery she is interrupted by the postman but by this stage Vera has already succumbed to her injuries setting in motion the murder investigation which acts as the framework for the film.
Like so many of Stephen King's novels the idea of adapting a story like 'Dolores Claiborne' seems like a near impossibility given how it is essentially a 305 page narration from Dolores' point of view. Through his script, Tony Gilroy manages to weave the characters past with the present through Dolores' strained relationship with her daughter Selena (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh and the younger version by Ellen Muth). To his credit he never loses King's voice as his script injects the candour to the dialect of the characters based in Little Town Island (and beyond) and the rueful tone he projects through his writing makes them feel like they've lived full lives by the time we are introduced to them making them feel all the more believable.
With these grounded characters Hackford makes some stylistic choices that give the film a fantastical flavour whenever Dolores reflects on her past. The colour palette used for the present is full of greys and blues to reflect the world weary nature of Dolores and how the spectre of her husband's death has never really been lifted from her. This is in contrast to the flashbacks which have a warm dreamlike glow that highlights the melodrama that exists within memory. It emboldens the drama in these scenes and makes them stand out to almost contrast the cruelty within these memories. Ian Nathan in his book Stephen King at the Movies describes this contrast perfectly as he states, "memories come in lambent sunset colours while waking reality is cloaked in a graveyard gloom." It betrays the notion of "the good old days" and further highlights the tragic nature of Dolores' life.
At its heart 'Dolores Claiborne' is a story of a mother and daughter confronting the strains of their relationship because of the sins of the past. This strain is echoed in the strings of Danny Elfman's score which carries the momentum of mystery throughout the film as the opening never really makes it clear if Dolores is entirely responsible for Vera's death. As time has passed the two have grown so far apart that they are almost like two different people from who they once were. Dolores has been conditioned and worn down so much by her life in Little Tall Island that she is trapped by it with the past maintaining a firm grip on her heart making her embittered to most around her. While it appears on the surface that Selena has escaped this kind of life by becoming a successful journalist who almost looks down at the way of life for most in her hometown she too bears the burden of the past. Her attempts at burying her repressed memories has led to an overreliance on prescription medication. Although it hurts for both of them, the path for reconciliation lies in addressing the past so they can move on with their lives in the present.
When you think of Kathy Bates as an actress the first role that springs to mind is the psychotic superfan Annie Wilkes from 'Misery'. Although that role won Bates an Oscar she has gone on record on numerous occasions to say that her role as Dolores Claiborne is her favourite. Based on her committed performance in the film it is easy to see why. When King wrote the novel he said he had Bates in his mind's eye writing the character, whose name means sadness or sorrow. In the role Bates exhibits these emotions and so many more both explicitly and subtly. Surprisingly it isn't spoken as much as her role as Annie Wilkes but it is every bit as good. She embodies the spirit of a world weary woman who has suffered a life of abuse from all corners and there is a tiredness to the performance as she sighs through her posture and the way in which she speaks. She along with other characters says the line, "sometimes bein' a bitch is all a woman has to hang onto" and that sums up Dolores perfectly. Her tragic life has left her with nothing else but feelings of embittered sadness.
Jennifer Jason Leigh is also excellent as Selena. On the surface she appears to have put the "bad patch" of the past behind her but she still bears nothing but resentment towards her mother for bringing her back home. What makes Leigh's performance so great is how behind the overt bluntness and somewhat snooty attitude towards her estranged mother she lets out glimmers of the love she has for her deep down. The seeds of this resentment are sewn through Ellen Muth's performance as the younger version of Selena. Through Dolores' flashbacks, Selena succumbs to the manipulations of her father driving a wedge in the relationship with her mother. There is a sense of fear and confusion in Muth's eyes that makes the revelations behind her father's abuse all the more horrifying.
As the abusive patriarch Joe St. George, David Strathairn is a near cartoonish monster with a cutting Maine accent but it fits perfectly with his appearances as they are from Dolores' memories. Whenever he exhibits a side that is remotely playful it is a warning of something terrible to follow as it precedes an outburst of violence. This, alongside his sense of entitlement in his drunken demeanour, makes him a powder keg that can be set off at any moment. Even when her husband is out of her life Dolores has to contend with the vindictive Inspector John Mackie (played by Christopher Plummer) whose determined yet heavy handed approach is geared towards finding Dolores guilty rather than finding the truth. Plummer plays this obsessive behaviour well as you can see it eating at him on the inside behind his steely veneer. He is the embodiment of a fragile ego.
The likes of John C. Reilly and Eric Bogosian make noteworthy appearances but one of the standout performances in the supporting cast comes from Judy Parfitt as the detestable Vera Donovan. Like so many of the characters in the film she presents herself one way but in the few moments she lets her guard down another person entirely is hiding underneath. Parfitt is brilliant at portraying such a hateful person but the vulnerable aspects to her performance in the latter stages of her character's life make you feel pity for her. The thing that stands out most about the character is the similarities she shares with Dolores despite the vast gulf in their social status as they both live in "a depressingly masculine world" that suffocates them emotionally.
The dramatic peak of the film comes with the solar eclipse of 1975 as Selena listens to a tape recording of Dolores recounting the events of her final confrontation with Joe. Knowing she can rid herself of Joe once and for all she hatches a plan to get him drunk enough to fall down an old well nearby to make his death look like an accident. The warm look of the flashbacks are pushed into overdrive as the eclipse heightens the melodrama whilst maintaining a gothic flavour. The higher the tension gets in the scene, the more stylised the scene becomes before Joe plunges to his death. On the ferry leaving Little Tall Island Selena finally confronts her past when a memory of her father's molestation of her comes to light. She realises that everything Dolores has done, she has done for her, so Selena tries to make things right by attending the coroner's inquest into Vera's death. Through her journalistic background she points out the lack of circumstantial evidence in Dolores' guilt preventing a case from going before a grand jury. The film ends with the two reconciling putting to bed the ghosts of their past.
When you think of Stephen King, the name Dolores Claiborne is far down the list of titles he is synonymous with. Its lack of supernatural or fantastical elements means that it isn't talked about in the same breath as something like 'The Shining' or 'It'. The difference is that 'Dolores Claiborne' deals with the ghosts that haunt the heart, that exposes the real horrors men inflict upon women and the lasting effect it has. Along with something like 'Cujo' it has to go down as one of the most underrated King adaptations to date with everyone involved with the film both in front and behind the camera firing on all cylinders.
- Joseph McElroy