Dolores Clairbone: Taylor Hackford’s Skillfully Directed Psychological Thriller, Starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Taylor Hackford skillfully directed this engaging, old-fashioned Hollywood mother-daughter melodrama, which is well acted by Oscar winner Kathy Bates, and Oscar nominee Jennifer Jason Leigh and David Strathairn.

Based on the novella of the same title by the prolific Stephen King, the screenplay is deftly written by Tony Gilory  (later a director himself) in what’s one of the best adaptations of a King’s Gothic work.

Kathy Bates stated considers her role as the titular Dolores as her favorite performance, even more satisfying than Misery, her 1990 Best Actress Oscar role, also based on a King novella.

In 1995, Dolores Claiborne (Bates) works as a domestic servant on Little Tall Island in Maine, the local of most of King’s stories, seemingly fighting with her elderly, paralyzed employer Vera Donovan (Judy arfitte, also excellent).

When Vera falls down the staircase, Dolores ransacked the kitchen and was caught by a mailman as she stands over Vera with rolling pin. Did she intend to kill her bossy employer?  The police begin a murder investigation, when Vera dies.

Enters Dolores’ daughter, Selena St. George (Jason Leigh), a successful N.Y. journalist who battles depression and substance abuse. She arrives in town to support her mother, despite doubts about the latter’s innocence.

Dolores insists she did not kill her employer, but finds little sympathy or empathy.  The town still holds that she had murdered her husband, Joe St. George (David Strathairn, cast against type) two decades earlier.

She is harassed by the town’s inhabitants, her home is vandalized, she’s taunting in the streets, screamed at, and so on.

Detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), the chief detective in her husband’s murder case, is determined to put Dolores away for life–once and for all. Selena has not spoken to her mother in over a decade.

The psychological thriller unfolds in a series of revelatory flashbacks, which are extremely well inserted into the lurid mother-dautgher narrative.

In 1975, Joe, an abusive drunkard, was threatened by Dolores if he ever harmed her again. Selena, then 13, was unaware her mother was being abused. To pay for Selena’s education, Dolores went to work as a housemaid for millionaire Vera Donovan. However, her plan to withdraw money so that she and Selena can escape, backfired, when Joe stole the money from Selena’s savings account.

Dolores claims that Vera threw herself down the staircase, begging her to end her misery.  Mackey is skeptical–Vera had left her entire fortune to Dolores.

Dolores eventually confesses that she knew all along that Joe was sexually abusing Selena. After a fierce argument, Selena leaves her mom to fend for herself.

Another confession: Dolores broke down and confessed Joe’s abuses to Vera, who remained cold until Dolores mentioned that he was molesting Selena. Vera then implied she killed her own late, unfaithful hubby, Jack, and engineered it to look like an accident. Vera’s confession formed an intimate bond between the two women.

One night, Joe returned from work on a fishing boat, and Dolores offered him Scotch to celebrate the eclipse. Dolores then provoked him into attacking her, resulting in a fatal falling down an old well.

While on the ferry, Selena experiences  a repressed memory of her father, assaulting her sexually.  Finally realizing her mother was telling the truth, Selena rushes back to Dolores as the latter is attending inquest.  Selena tells Mackey that he has no admissible evidence, and only acting out of site, personal vendetta against Dolores. Mackey reluctantly drops the charges, and mother and daughter reconcile just before Selena returns to N.Y.

Dolores Clairbone belongs to the same genre as old Hollywood chestnuts, mother-daughter melodramas like Stella Dallas (1937), starring Barbara Stanwyck, and Mildred Pierce (1945), Joan Crawford’s Oscar winning performance.  Note that all three films are named after the titular heroine.