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‘Dolores Claiborne’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 24, 1995


Taylor Hackford
Kathy Bates;
Jennifer Jason Leigh;
David Strathairn;
Eric Bogosian;
John C. Reilly;
Judy Parfitt;
Christopher Plummer
Under 17 restricted

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You don't have to strain to see that "Dolores Claiborne," Taylor Hackford's film version of the Stephen King novel, has a whopping list of shortcomings -- and yet it still manages to be an engrossing, unsettling and, at times, powerful psychological thriller.

The details of this tense drama about spouse abuse, child abuse, alcoholism and murder seem to have been lifted not from life but from a social worker's all-purpose profile of domestic victimization. With its muted tones and measured, astringent style, it has the look and feel of a European art house product, but it has more in common with TV problem dramas and old Hollywood melodramas like "Stella Dallas" and "Mildred Pierce."

At the beginning of the film, which is set on a rocky island off the coast of Maine, Dolores (Kathy Bates) is arrested for the murder of her employer (the awesome Judy Parfitt), a wealthy old biddy from whom she has taken orders for the past quarter century. For 15 of those years, Dolores has not so much as laid eyes on her daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a hard-driving, emotionally damaged New York newspaper reporter. After learning of Dolores's arrest, though, Selena heads north to help straighten out the mess. But from the instant they are reunited, it's clear that this tough, brooding collection of phobias and neuroses despises her mother -- and for good reason.

The twist is that before Selena left home, Dolores had another run-in with the law over a suspicious death -- that time involving her abusive, alcoholic husband (David Strathairn). Though ultimately his death was ruled an accident, Selena has hung on to the idea that her mother was in some way responsible. And Selena's not the only one. For years a local detective (Christopher Plummer) has been obsessed with pinning the earlier murder on Dolores; now, with the help of an eyewitness who saw Dolores standing over the crumpled body of her employer, murder weapon in hand, he's convinced that he's finally nailed her.

All things considered, it's a pretty preposterous yarn. Yet at the same time, it's strangely predictable. This is especially true of the relationship between mother and daughter, who throughout the picture scrap and bicker over the past, with Selena blaming Dolores for her ravaged, booze-and-pill-addicted life.

Still, the somber duet between these two gifted actresses makes the movie worth catching. As the long-suffering Dolores, Bates might have been an insufferable martyr, sacrificing everything to save Selena from the strenuous life she has been forced to lead. But Bates has wiped away all signs of self-pity from her character, choosing to play her instead as an impenitent witch with the mouth of a stevedore. It's as strong a performance as she's ever given, and during those blessed moments when Dolores cuts loose and speaks her mind, a wickedly funny one too.

Leigh, on the other hand, turns Selena into a portrait in black. With her dark bangs hanging over her forehead like a veil, she plays this mixed-up modern woman as someone who hasn't quite made up her mind whether she wants to live or die. There's almost nothing to like about Selena; she's humorless, bitter and, at least where her mother is concerned, wholly unforgiving. And yet her pain and resentment are so potent that they can't be ignored.

Together, the reality that these two brilliant actresses bring to their characters shatters the programmatic, male-bashing social agenda that Hackford and screenwriter Tony Gilroy have set up. There's a lot to overlook here, but they make the picture worth the effort.

Dolores Claiborne is rated R.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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