In 'Claiborne,' dial M for murder, and give an 'A' to Bates

March 24, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Someone once said hell hath no fury like a woman scorned but . . . what did he know? The truth that "Dolores Claiborne" gets at is more fundamental: Hell hath no fury like a wife abused.

The film emerges from a peculiarly cold clime -- not Maine (though that's the physical setting) but the chilly, stoic region of repressed rage and numb existence where an abused woman retreats. But some crimes, the movie goes on to suggest, can't be so conveniently filed under denial; they have to be avenged.

Derived from an atypical Stephen King novel, it's one of those movies that's loaded with flaws and yet is quite moving. "Dolores Claiborne" grips primarily on the flinty strength of its performances and its fervent expression of the power of sisterhood. As a formal story it's somewhat clumsily structured, turning too frequently on information arbitrarily withheld and then recalled at exactly the right moment. And its climax, a hearing at which these issues are decided, is lame.

Dolores, played by Kathy Bates, is first glimpsed apparently in the act of murdering her ancient and enfeebled employer by tossing her down a flight of stairs, then looking for a blunt instrument with which to finish off the old biddy. The investigating officer in the case, Maine state police detective John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), is familiar with Dolores and her tricks because 18 years ago he investigated the death of her husband under similarly ambiguous circumstances. He has borne a grudge ever since that he wasn't able to make a homicide rap stick.

What ensues therefore is a double narrative, a case of competing flashbacks: the detective's attempts to link Dolores to the murder (if it was) of her employer, and Dolores' attempts to mentally reconstruct her husband's death, as provoked by the presence of her brittle, successful but neurotic daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a staff writer for a thinly imagined Esquire.

Dolores, to look at her, is a type: brusque, remote, emotionally retarded, profane, tough as brass bushings, without a kind word for any soul in the world. She's bent double under a lifetime of unremitting hard work, her fingers raw, her hair prematurely gray. The weariness that leaks from her dull eyes seems to reflect a soul rubbed thin by life's hardness. She's not between the rock and the hard place; she is the rock and the hard place.

This being the case, the death of Vera Donovan looks like an open-and-shut case, especially when we learn that Vera (Judy Parfitt) was notoriously difficult and that she'd left Dolores $1.6 million.

Selena doesn't help matters along. She only barely manages to conceal the fact she thinks her mother killed her father and that her subsequent pathologies (she drinks, she's a total pillhead) date from that trauma.

In real time, almost nothing happens: That is, the film is set over a weekend in which the two women share Dolores' ramshackle farmhouse, snarling at each other through a pall of cigarette smoke and Scotch afterburn. Rather too neatly, however, their flashbacks reconstruct a grim past.

Dolores was married to a brute of a lout of a creep named Joe St. George (David Strathairn), who not only beats her when it amuses him but also steals the money she'd been saving so carefully for Selena's education -- and at that time Delores' sustaining dream was to get Selena out of backwater Maine (actually, they inhabit a bleakly picturesque island).

There's no mercy anywhere for Dolores, for Vera, recently widowed and living in the island's finest home to which she's repaired after the tragic death of her beloved husband (that's why she tells the movers to get his$#& furniture out in a hurry) is a full-toot dragon lady, apt to go ballistic if Dolores hangs the sheets with five clothespins instead of six.

But . . . it soon develops that while Joe may be even worse than we've been told, Vera may be a lot better. Judy Parfitt is new to American films (she's British, not that you can tell) but she's terrific in what might be called the enabling role. She's the one who sets the plot in motion by cluing Dolores into a key reality: "Sometimes," she lectures, "an accident can be an unhappy woman's best friend."

"Dolores Claiborne" never achieves much suspense and what it does it dissipates in a somewhat drearily constructed courtroom scene at the end. But on the power of three superb performances (Leigh, Bates and Parfitt), it is an entirely remarkable experience.

"Dolores Claiborne"

Starring Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh

Directed by Taylor Hackford

Released by Castle Rock

Rated R (profanity, sexual situations)

***

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