It's reasonably easy to say Dolores Claiborne is an atypical Stephen King novel to be adapted for the screen. But, of course, some of the best films to have been made from stories by the prolific writer haven't necessarily been supernatural tales (Stand by Me for one). This story of a Maine live-in maid (Kathy Bates) suspected of murdering her employer of 22 years, and of the effect this has on the journalist daughter who fled the nest early (Jennifer Jason Leigh), turns out instead to be prestige family drama for tony audiences, complete with tasteful handling and high-powered star performances from a first-rate cast - and that isn't such a bad thing as it may seem, when the central plot, touching simultaneously on issues of class and gender in modern-day America, is so expertly laid out before your eyes.

     The other key thing that raises Dolores Claiborne above run-of-the-mill King-by-numbers is the sheer unvarnished unpleasantness of every single character in the tale, the female characters bonded in a sort of "sisterhood of bitches", every single one of them having to behave like one in order to simply make it through their daily lives in a world where men rule and don't often do so fairly (visible in Christopher Plummer's condescending mainland detective brought in to investigate Vera Donovan's death, who lets his prejudice take over the investigation). Behind the rustic aspect of a resort smalltown mystery, Taylor Hackford's film is a brittle, bitter tragedy of women forced to play by rules other than their own, with the cast relishing the lack of need to "behave" - Ms. Bates and Judy Parfitt are a perfect double-act, and even Ms. Leigh's performance, with her trademarked mannerisms present and correct, is perfectly judged within the film's tone. Mr. Hackford expertly manages the shifting timelines in a story that moves between three time periods, signaled by different colour schemes in Gabriel Beristain's cinematography (rich, golden tones for a past less than perfect, cold, damp grays and blues for the present), but doesn't always evade the sense that the film could have used a little trim; the double climax of the eclipse flashback and the present-day fake-courtroom push Dolores Claiborne slightly over the top, but not enough to make this solid piece go overboard.

Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh; Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn, Judy Parfitt, John C. Reilly; Eric Bogosian.
     Director, Taylor Hackford; screenplay, Tony Gilroy, from the novel by Stephen King, Dolores Claiborne; cinematography, Gabriel Beristain (processing by Film House, colour by Technicolor, Panavision widescreen); music, Danny Elfman; production designer, Bruno Rubeo; costume designer, Shay Cunliffe; editor, Mark Warner; producers, Mr. Hackford, Charles Mulvehill (Castle Rock Entertainment), USA, 1995, 132 minutes. 
     Screened: DVD, December 28th 2011.


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