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Dolores Claiborne (1995) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

vera selena death mother

Principal social themes: women’s rights, addiction, aging, child abuse/spouse abuse, suicide/depression, end-of-life issues, homelessness/poverty

Columbia. R rating. Featuring: Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christopher Plummer, Judy Parfitt, David Strathairn, Eric Bogosian, John C. Riley, Ellen Muth, Bob Gunton. Written by Tony Gilroy based on the novel by Stephen King. Cinematography by Gabriel Beristain. Edited by Mark Warner. Music by Danny Elfman. Produced by Taylor Hackford and Charles Mulvehill. Directed by Taylor Hackford. Color. 131 minutes.


Based on Stephen King’s most powerful nonhorror novel, Dolores Claiborne focuses on an investigation by the Maine State Police of the death of wealthy Vera Donovan on a small, offshore island. Detective John Mackey wants to build a case against her employee, Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates), whom he believes murdered her husband twenty years earlier. Dolores’ estranged daughter arrives on the island to assist her mother, and the two of them sort out their differences in their troubled lives.


The format of Dolores Claiborne is somewhat complex, with a great number of flashbacks, some lengthy and some only lasting a few seconds, mostly Dolores’ memories. This summary, therefore, concentrates on the highlights in a more linear fashion. Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a successful young magazine writer in New York in a career rut. She pleads with her editor (Eric Bogosian), a former lover, to be assigned a hot new assignment in Arizona. She receives an anonymous fax of an article from the Bangor Daily News reporting that her mother, Dolores Claiborne (her maiden name), is being investigated in the suspicious death of her employer, Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt). Selena travels to remote Little Tall Island off the coast of Jonesport, Maine, her first visit home in fifteen years. Dolores is being held at the town hall, not yet under arrest. John Mackey (Christopher Plummer), from the Maine State Police, reminds Selena that they met in 1975 when he investigated the death of her father, Joe St. George (David Strathairn). He concluded that Dolores was responsible, but the prosecutors refused to indict her. Mackey claims he solved eighty-two of the eighty-three homicide cases in his career, with the Joe St. George case being the exception. Selena reminds him that her father’s death was ruled an accident. Dolores is released into her daughter’s custody, and they return to the small, neglected house owned by Dolores. For the past several years, her mother had lived in the Donovan mansion, nursing the semi-invalid matriarch of the island. Memories haunt Dolores as she lights the stove and tries to make the house livable. She tells Selena that she did not kill Vera, who actually attempted suicide by throwing herself downstairs. Badly hurt, Vera pleaded with Dolores to finish the job, and she grabbed a rolling pin out of the kitchen, but was unable to strike. The letter carrier arrived at the exact moment that Vera died from her injuries, and he assumed that Dolores was responsible. Selena leaves her mother at home to get some groceries from the only store on the island. After she leaves, Dolores looks through Selena’s purse and, finding a large number of pills, concludes that her daughter is addicted to prescription drugs. When her daughter returns from the store, she also brings a bottle of liquor and becomes drunk. Both Dolores and Selena talk out their troubles during the next few days. Mackey shows up and asks for a sample of Dolores’s hair for testing. He advises her to hire an attorney, but she refuses. Dolores is allowed to return to Vera’s house to collect her belongings, but discovers that Mackey has impounded most of them. She insists, however, in taking her scrapbook, a collection of Selena’s magazine articles, including her famous interview with Richard Nixon. When they leave the Donovan mansion, Mackey drops a bombshell, revealing that Vera left her entire fortune, over a million dollars, to Dolores. This, he declares, establishes a motive, but Dolores claims to know nothing about Vera’s will. Later, Mackey drops off a copy of his report on Vera’s death at the Claiborne house. Selena is alarmed, but her mother refuses to look at it. A hearing at the town hall is scheduled for the following morning. As they discuss the past, Dolores is stunned to learn that Selena has no memory of being sexually abused by her father. Selena is astonished by her mother’s revelation. She decides to leave and take the report to a lawyer in New York. As she leaves, Selena advises her mother to accept his call.

On the ferry to the mainland, Selena discovers a cassette tape her mother had secretly recorded for her. On it, she tells the full story of Joe’s death fifteen years earlier. At age thirteen, Selena’s school grades had fallen dramatically, arousing her mother’s suspicions. The girl had become moody and secretive. Her mother suspected drug use, but instead discovered that Joe had been molesting her. He had been an abusive husband, but Dolores never realized he was molesting their daughter. She travels to the bank on the mainland where she had deposited her earnings as Vera’s maid in a passbook account in trust for Selena. She is stunned to learn that Joe had closed the account, and the bank had never checked with her. Accusing the bank manager with sex discrimination, she persuades them to transfer the money back. Vera plans a party to celebrate the upcoming total solar eclipse. Dolores breaks down while doing her chores and tells Vera about her troubles with Joe. Vera advises that there is only one solution, to arrange for Joe’s death. Desperate, Dolores follows Vera’s advice, and comes her home early. She gets Joe drunk, and as the eclipse begins, she tells him that she got her money back from the bank. Enraged, Joe chases her, and she lures him to a deep, hidden dry well. He falls in and hangs onto the rim, begging her to help him. Instead, she turns to watch the eclipse as he drops to his death. As Selena finishes listening to the tape, she suddenly starts to recall her father’s sexual abuse, memories she had repressed all these years. She now realizes her mother’s sacrifice, as well as the cause of her own addiction problems. She returns to the island, interceding before the judge who is considering Mackey’s report. She persuades him to clear Dolores, with whom she is now totally reconciled.


Dolores Claiborne is a poignant, haunting cinema effort, magnificently filmed with a memorable, lyrical score by Danny Elfman. The plot is a virtual compendium of social issues including poverty, addiction, child abuse, depression, aging, and suicide. Perhaps the category “women’s issues” is most apt, given that the key phrase in the movie, “sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to,” is repeated at three key moments in the story by Vera, Dolores, and Selena. Vera was a demanding, finicky woman, obsessive in her rules about cleanliness. We later learn that her philandering husband subjected her to mental cruelty by. When discussing Dolores’ troubles with Joe, Vera reveals to her maid that she arranged her husband’s automobile accident. After becoming a widow, she more or less imprisoned herself in her mansion on Little Tall Island, frustrated by life and growing older with only the companionship of Dolores, to whom she was usually distant. Vera never told Dolores that she would be her sole heir. In the film, she grew to hate the infirmities inflicted on her by old age and decided to end it on her own terms in her own home, not in a hospital. The movie differs at this point from the book, in which she throws herself down the stairs trying to escape from a hallucination. The film version actually improves and enriches the scene, making Vera’s decision a genuine choice, not an accident. It also makes the earlier scene in which Vera asks for Dolores to wind her porcelain pig music box, which plays “Happy Days Are Here Again,” far more touching and meaningful. It grants Vera one last moment of contentment, reflecting on a pleasant memory. The issue of mercy killing is also introduced during the death scene, in which Vera pleads with Dolores to help her die.

Dolores herself is a hard, ornery woman who has both suffered and sacrificed much. She was a stubborn fighter, standing up to various men in the film. She confronts her brutal, abusive husband, hitting him with a milk pitcher and holding him at bay with an axe in a vibrant flashback. After his death, she asserts her independence by dropping his surname. Likewise, she defied the vindictive Mackey as well as the local island teenagers who call her names. Her most successful confrontation, however, is exemplified in the bank scene, in which she exclaims, with indignation, that the bank overlooked her rights because she is a woman. The bank manager, arguing with her at first, becomes convinced that she has a point and takes action to remedy it. In dealing with women, however, Dolores is more tolerant, putting up with Vera’s excesses and her own daughter’s unruliness.

Of the three women, Selena seems both the strongest and the weakest. Brilliant and creative, she has is a writer of renown, an international success. At the same time, her private life is a mess, she is completely reliant on drugs and alcohol to function, and she is haunted by demons she neither understands nor attempts to confront. After her father’s death, she completely suppresses all memories of his abuse, blaming her mother as his killer. The truth only becomes apparent to her after hearing her mother’s confession on tape. Selena’s strength as an advocate really shines through in the hearing, using both common sense and the rights of women in her arguments.

The three lead actresses, Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Judy Parfitt, turn in performances of extraordinary depth, intensity, and subtly. The intricate script handles all the various themes, especially the social issues, with honesty and intelligence. Dolores Claiborne has many unforgettable moments, including the magnificent staging of the eclipse sequence, which is of an extraordinary beauty and dramatic impact.

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