To paraphrase a popular car slogan, “Dolores Claiborne” is not your father’s Stephen King movie. Dark and grim, with a terrific central performance by Kathy Bates, pic offers more to fans of traditional melodrama than to King devotees, and as a result Columbia will need clever marketing — and not just an accident — to keep “Dolores’ ” biggest returns from coming in homevideo.
Writer Tony Gilroy has for the most part done a laudable job, taking considerable creative license in turning King’s novel — an internal monologue — into a feature detailing the “did she or didn’t she” life of Bates’ title character.
Accused of murdering the old woman for whom she’s cared the past 22 years, Dolores is forced to confront her estranged daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and the mysterious death two decades earlier of her abusive husband, deemed an accident at the time despite the suspicions of the detective involved (Christopher Plummer).
Leigh’s Selena is a high-strung magazine writer who still blames her mother for the death of her father (David Strathairn), who, through a series of flashbacks, is shown to be a truly despicable character.
Deftly cutting between the past and the present, director Taylor Hackford manages to establish a compelling mood and pace even though the pic lacks a thriller’s true “Aha!” moment.
Hackford’s direction does provide ample visual flair — depicting the past in glowing, colorful hues, while the present is consistently bleak and gray. Similar cues accompany the pivotal moment between Dolores and her hubby, which occurs during a total eclipse.
After last directing the overly ambitious “Bound by Honor,” Hackford turns in an impressive, workmanlike job here, keeping the story moving briskly despite its length and somber nature — with scant comic relief other than Dolores’ colorful New England argot, which proves disarmingly funny if only because the tone is so otherwise dour.
The director also exercises considerable and welcome restraint in presenting the story’s more painful elements — which could easily have been turned into a three-hanky TV movie.
For all those assets, “Dolores” doesn’t quite sustain its momentum all the way to the finish line, offering a rather pat ending that lacks the emotional wallop one might have expected given the events leading up to it.
More than anything, the movie provides a showcase for Bates, who won an Oscar for her last association with King material in “Misery.” Dolores is another larger-than-life role — a salty, crusty old gal who’s been made that way, as demonstrated through flashback, by her vulnerability in a tumultuous past. It’s a showy role, and Bates plays it to the hilt.
Leigh is stuck with a more difficult part as the daughter — a sour, self-absorbed creature fabricated for the movie who, not surprisingly, is overshadowed in her scenes with Mom. Strathairn proves properly unctuous as the husband, while British actress Judy Parfitt is a scene-stealer, delivering some of the film’s strongest exchanges as Dolores’ snotty, rich employer.
Tech credits are uniformly impressive, from Gabriel Beristain’s contrasting cinematography to the understated score by Danny Elfman, who continues to distinguish himself as one of filmdom’s premier composers. Nova Scotia makes a properly foreboding backdrop, in keeping with “Dolores’ ” brooding tone.