Kathy Bates, who can play a role for glamour or frumpishness with equal apparent ease, has become the screen’s quintessential interpreter of blue collar integrity and struggling womankind.
Bates’ triumph of the moment is “Dolores Claiborne,” whose title role requires her to suffer under male domination in two distinct periods of time. In unnerving flashback sequences, a young Dolores Claiborne endures the vile brutalities of a husband (David Strathairn) who will drive her to the breaking point. In the grim present day, a prematurely aged Dolores is getting the attentions of a police officer (Christopher Plummer) determined to snag her on a murder rap.
The cop’s new leverage into the long-ago demise of Dolores’ cruel husband is the recent violent death of Dolores’ employer (Judy Parfitt). The detective lures Dolores’ estranged daughter, a successful New York journalist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), back home to coastal Maine and begins setting traps into which Dolores seems eager to stumble.
Adapted for the screen by Tony Gilroy from Stephen King’s novel, this is at once an intricate whodunit and a character study of depth and sad resonance. Bates’ character is a crusty old cuss, seemingly invulnerable, until she is forced to confront ugly memories that she and her daughter buried a long time ago.
If the mood is downbeat, director Taylor Hackford and a sharply chosen ensemble cast keep the pace vital with a variety of storytelling ploys.
Gabriel Beristain, the cinematographer, contributes mightily to the intrigue by using distinct film stocks to distinguish between the now and the then. The stark bleakness of the present day gives way to flashbacks that are lush and richly saturated in color and light.
As hidden truths come to light in increasing volume, the flashbacks turn more and more nightmarish - finally reaching a point where we, like Dolores, realize why such atrocities were hidden in the first place.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: “Dolores Claiborne” Location: East Sprague, Newport and Coeur d’Alene cinemas. Cast: Directed by Taylor Hackford; starring Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Plummer, David Strathairn Running time: 132 minutes Rating: R