‘Dolores Claiborne’: The Hidden Gem of Stephen King Adaptations?

Kathy Bates appeared in two Stephen King adaptations in the early nineties and although she won her Oscar for Misery, she insists that her preferred performance was in Dolores Claiborne. This under-seen thriller sees Bates play the titular Claiborne, a maid who is accused of murdering her employer, socialite Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). There’s much in Claiborne’s past that is mysterious, including the fate of her husband and the exact nature of the grievance between her and her daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who has reluctantly returned to assist her.

The drama of the film comes from the dynamic between mother and daughter, as well as the antagonism of Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer). This dynamic occasionally explodes into melodrama, but is driven by excellent performances. Bates plays another tough country woman with some bumpkin-ish tendencies (some of the curses she mutters to herself are fairly absurd), but unlike Misery she’s not merely a dragon to be defeated. She has a stubborn determination and strength that disguises a huge sorrow and loneliness. It’s a powerful performance from Bates.

One of the most interesting aspect of the film is how it deals with the past. The circumstances around the employer’s death, and the circumstances leading up to Claiborne’s husband disappearing are explored through flashbacks that invade the screen as they invade Claibourne’s psyche. Elements from the past will suddenly appear in the future, segueing into a memory, almost always from Claiborne’s perspective. This is a very dynamic method of illustrating that the past is very much haunting the characters.

Of course this is still a Stephen King joint. So we have some irredeemable psychotic bullies, an alcoholic father and some subject matter that feels a little distasteful. Scenes involving the father feel at odds with the rest of the film particularly due to the over the top performance of David Strathairn. There is also some of that very awkward King dialogue (“Bet the last time you were sorry was when you needed to use the pay toilet and the string on your pet dime broke.”). But director Taylor Hackford brings some very powerful technical innovation to enliven the familiar tropes.

The makeup and lighting effects that distinguish the past from the present are incredibly effective. Bates, Plummer, and Parfitt in particular do seem to age 22 years between scenes. The effect is far more convincing than any of Marvel’s CGI efforts. The past scenes are filmed in a warm sepia light, including a particularly beautiful eclipse scene, whilst the scenes set in the present have a gorgeous chilliness. All deep shadows and blues, the frames are reminiscent of Bergman. Evocative images such as Bates’ well-weathered hands, Leigh’s jet black hair covering scars on her neck, or Claiborne’s run down house have continued to haunt me.

It’s clear to see why Bates prefers this performance. Annie Wilkes was a wonderful monster but moments that begged sympathy from the audience were few. This film explores why a woman might become one of King’s classic “killer bitches.” It’s great that the film is focussed on the three women and there’s a sophistication to the way that the characters interact that surpasses most of the horror or tension focussed works of other King adaptations.

Dolores Claiborne is an excellent character study and a very arresting thriller. You may guess the twists before they arrive, but the technical brilliance of the film’s execution and the strengths of the performances kept me involved.

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