*. There’s a word you’ll often hear applied to Dolores Claiborne that I want to start with: melodrama. What this usually refers to is exaggerated or heightened emotionality in a domestic setting, with clear heroes and villains. I think Dolores Claiborne is ripe melodrama, and one of the things that struck me watching it was just how slight a nudge it would take to push it into parody. It’s almost there. But then, that’s the case with most melodrama. It likes to walk the line.
*. For some reviewers it went too far. Owen Gleiberman, for example, writing in Entertainment Weekly: “Based on Stephen King’s 1992 novel, this solemnly ludicrous ‘psychological’ thriller is like one of Hollywood’s old-hag gothics turned into a therapeutic grouse-a-thon — it’s Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte for the Age of Oprah. ”
*. This is harsh, too harsh in my opinion. I don’t see much of the hagsploitation genre in it, aside from incidentals. But the nod to Oprah does seem right. This is the sort of hard-luck story with a triumphal conclusion that we expect from daytime TV. In soaps. In melodrama.
*. The story is based on a Stephen King novel, and it’s true to that story while presenting it in a radically different way, making Selena into a character equal to her mother. This has the sometimes irritating effect of turning the movie into a complicated web of flashbacks but it also gives Kathy Bates someone to play against in Jennifer Jason Leigh.
*. Director Taylor Hackford calls the leads his “two racehorses” on the DVD commentary and they’re usually given a lot of credit. Personally, I find Bates just barely credible. Leigh, however, is an actor I’ve always been fond of and she is terrific, convincingly and sympathetically giving us a woman who is burned out before she’s even turned 30. I think Leigh was one of the great underused talents of her generation. How I wish she had been in some better movies in her career. Still, there’s hope yet.
*. I’d like to say that the melodramatic (artificial, exaggerated) parts are where the film falls down, but that would be both too easy and wrong. No, I don’t buy the repressed memory business (though the presentation of Selena as a victim of incest is psychologically astute otherwise). I also don’t buy the funny accents, which may be realistic but sound put on. And the inquest finale, with Selena defending her mom as though in court (she’s covered enough trials, apparently, to know how they work) strikes me as ridiculous.
*. But in other places it’s the heightening of the drama in strange ways that leads to the most effective moments.
*. Chief among these is the long eclipse scene. Throughout the movie different film stocks are used to present past and present. The present scenes were shot on Kodak, which has a reputation for looking cool. This was helped along by saturating the colour scheme with blues. The past was shot with Fuji film for more of a warm look. The eclipse/murder scene is in the past, but it has an added, surreal quality to it for being shot on what was then the largest blue screen stage in the world. The harbour in the background looks like some kind of diorama borrowed from Gone with the Wind. It doesn’t look at all realistic, and yet we’ve been so grounded in the reality of this location that it seems like reality has been magically transformed, or is being redrawn before our eyes.
*. Well, we might say, it is an eclipse, which is a magical sort of event where the light does take on a special quality. And it is the climax of the film, where the big secret of what happened to the no-good husband is revealed. It’s a testament to how great I think this scene is that it stands out for me as a favourite movie moment despite the fact that I don’t really love Dolores Claiborne as a whole.
*. The other stand-out moment of surreality is Selena seeing the back of her own head in the mirror on the ferry, an homage to a painting by Magritte (“La reproduction interdite”). Dolores Claiborne is not a tale of supernatural horror, but it does a great job building up to and fashioning a moment of psychological terror and alienation like this.
*. The movie is uneven. It’s too long. There are big chunks of it that I didn’t think worked well at all (Christopher Plummer’s role as the local Javert is awful, and frankly Judy Parfitt’s turn as the lady of the big house isn’t much better). The build up to a pair of secrets I was never that interested in, mainly through the overuse of flashbacks, was obvious and tired. And yet, as so often with King, something in the basic idea, and its rendering here, has a strength and staying power that’s hard to deny. King has been such a representative popular artist for so long I have to wonder if he’ll endure or if stories like these will come to seem to be only of their time. Which is my time too, so I can feel it passing.