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‘Dolores Claiborne’

By Desson Howe
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
mild nudity, violence, sexual situations, profanity and absolutely no sign of Brad Dourif

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THESE ARE strange times for horror pictures. Last year, there was a good Freddy Krueger movie, called "Wes Craven's New Nightmare." And this year -- at least in the case of "Dolores Claiborne" -- the phrase "Based on a novel by Stephen King" should not be considered a warning.

"Dolores," starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and drawn from the King book of the same name, comes surprisingly close to just right. The movie is given unusually wide dimension by director Taylor Hackford, who creates a subtly scary drama that emphasizes character over caricature (in most cases) and plausibility over formulaic stupidity (again, in most cases). There are no chain saws, prosthetic hooks, apparitions or dead pets here, but you're kept at the edge of your seat almost to the end. For a movie based on -- you know -- this amounts to a rave review.

Best of all is Bates, as the eponymous Claiborne, a hard-slogging widow, mother and housemaid living on a remote Maine island, who has abided the tyranny of her imperious, rich boss Vera (Judy Parfitt) for decades. At the beginning of the movie, we see Bates apparently at the end of her tether: There is a scuffle between two figures at the top of a staircase. An old woman (Parfitt) comes hurtling down and smashes into the lower rail. Broken and inert, she's clearly close to death.

Bates, distraught beyond reason, her gray hair completely disheveled, rushes downstairs to the body. She ransacks utensil drawers in the kitchen and returns clutching a rolling pin. She hoists it over her head. The old lady waits for the blow . . .

Meanwhile, in New York City, sullen magazine reporter Jennifer Jason Leigh is about to head to New Mexico for the biggest news story of her life when she gets a fax about Bates, her estranged mother, who has been accused of murder. She heads north, hops the ferry to Little Tall Island and runs smack into a past she's being running away from all these years.

Basically, King's stories are somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs. "Dolores"-the-movie plays another vengeful tune but with better grace notes. Bates and Leigh, who is introduced as an adult (in the book, her character remains a child), have been sworn enemies for 15 years, since the violent death of Bates's husband (the ubiquitous David Strathairn).

Detective Christopher Plummer, who believes Bates was responsible for Strathairn's demise, is determined to bring her to justice this time. But although Bates doesn't mind admitting she wanted to kill Vera, she maintains her innocence. Leigh, who becomes deeply involved in this tight-lipped, multiple-character war, uncovers secret after secret from the past.

This is a movie that, intriguingly, spends most of its time looking backward. Awaiting Plummer's investigations, Bates has to move out of her dead employer's house and into her long-deserted family home. Stuck with her rather hostile daughter in the old homestead, Bates undergoes a prolonged encounter session with Leigh, full of painful family memories. With adroit editing and digitalization, Hackford crosscuts frequently between the present and the past, so that flashbacks seem to take place before the women's very eyes -- as if mother and daughter have mutual mental-projection abilities.

Lest we forget this is a Stephen King affair, let us mention that the story is full of weaknesses. Leigh's alcoholic, chain-smoking, pill-popping bitch, as well as Strathairn's loathsome, hard-drinking boar are flat creations in comparison with Bates. As for a certain Bad Thing That Happened Long Ago, it's nothing more than a generic plot development. But the story, adapted by scriptwriter Tony Gilroy, is structured for maximum watchability. And Bates's performance is terrific. The star of "Misery" seems to thrive in King Country. Full of offbeat charm, eccentric charisma and colorful profanity (none of which can be repeated here), she exudes a believability you don't normally expect in movies like this. Clearly, the filmmakers exercised care instead of speed for "Dolores Claiborne" -- and it shows.

DOLORES CLAIBORNE (R) -- Contains mild nudity, violence, sexual situations, profanity and absolutely no sign of Brad Dourif.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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