Film review: Dolores Claiborne

Published: Tuesday, March 28 1995 12:00 a.m. MST

"Dolores Claiborne," the latest Stephen King horror-thriller to be adapted to film, is actually more of a semi-thrilling melodrama, the story of an extremely dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. But then, what can you expect when your mother allegedly killed your father all those years ago?

That's getting ahead of the game a bit, however. The film begins in the present day with a horrifying sequence involving Dolores (Kathy Bates) and her employer Vera (Judy Parfitt), a cold, wealthy, wheelchair-bound older woman.

From the camera's point of view, it appears that Dolores pushes Vera down the stairs and then tries to bash in her skull with a marble rolling pin. But as Dolores' arms are raised, holding the rolling pin above her head, the postman arrives. Not that it matters, since Vera has been killed by the fall.

Things are not always as they appear, however. And that deception of perception is gradually revealed as the theme of "Dolores Claiborne."

When Dolores is arrested on suspicion of murder, her daughter, a prominent New York magazine journalist named Selena St. George, is summoned home — home being a dreary small town on an island near Bangor, Maine. (Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is also a magazine writer in "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," another film opening today, plays the adult Selena.)

The bulk of the picture takes Dolores' point of view, with frequent flashbacks to the summer of 1975, as the town prepares for a solar eclipse and Dolores recalls events leading up to the death of her abusive husband Joe (David Strathairn, as a spouse who is 180 degrees from the one he plays in "Losing Isaiah"). Dolores takes the abuse up to a certain point but also lets Joe know that she has her limits, and she'll go to any lengths to protect her young daughter (with Selena being played by Ellen Muth in the childhood scenes).

As the story unfolds, we begin to understand just how nasty Joe was, and Dolores' motives and actions become clear. Meanwhile, a determined police detective (Christopher Plummer), who is not happy that the death of Dolores' husband was never satisfactorily resolved, is determined to see her prosecuted for Vera's death — especially after he sees Vera's will.

The actors here are all in top form, with another splendid performance by Kathy Bates at the film's core. Continuing a quite remarkable film career, she plays Delores as a victim who refuses to be victimized, and her strength of character is fascinating to watch as it blooms over the course of the film's flashbacks.

Leigh is also quite good, adding another depressed neurotic to her canon of roles, and Plummer memorably fills out yet another righteously indignant villain. Strathairn and young Muth also perform well — you'll hate him and feel her pain.

But the screenplay by Tony Gilroy ("The Cutting Edge") and direction by Taylor Hackford ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "Mortal Thoughts") seem unable to reach the level of emotion for which the actors strive. And without any supernatural elements in the Stephen King-based story, perhaps horror was never the aim here. There's nothing wrong with that, but the film also lacks tension and suspense — or even enough compelling emotion to make for a satisfactory thriller or melodrama.

Still, fans of King's work will want to go — and for those who enjoy watching screen actors improve on a mundane script, Bates and Leigh together may be enough. They certainly act up a storm.

"Dolores Claiborne" is rated R for violence, profanity and vulgarity.