Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) has worked for the richest woman on this Maine island for twenty-two years now, but today that arrangement has abruptly come to an end. What appears to have happened is that she took the now elderly Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt) to the top of the stairs in her mansion and pushed her down them, then was about to finish her off with a rolling pin when the postman caught her, though it was too late to save her boss. But Dolores is not talking, even as an inquest looms, and although she has not been arrested she is under suspicion. Now her daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a top New York journalist, feels she has to revisit her after fifteen years away...
Dolores Claiborne was one of the pro-women novels Stephen King wrote in the nineties, typically featuring a female lead character who was put upon by the men in her life and going through some ordeal as a result. This was a counterpart to Gerald's Game which too centered around an eclipse in the mid-seventies, and had similar child abuse plot themes, but while that book has never been filmed, probably because there aren't any movie stars willing to be handcuffed practically naked to a bed for the entire film, this one provided more fruitful possibilities as director Taylor Hackford perceived. His screenwriter Tony Gilroy opened out the source by having the Selena character reappear, which was a clever way of making it more cinematic, but also brought its own drawbacks.
Not that there was anything wrong with the performances, and King had written the original with Bates in mind after being so impressed with her when she took the Oscar-winning lead role in Misery; it's safe to say that she did justice to the part here. Yet King's version simply had Dolores sitting in an interview room and relating her life story to the police cassette recorder, which made more sense as if she was suspected of murder it's doubtful that they would have let her go while they drew up their case as they do in the film. Here we have to accept that she is far more reticent, even to the point of refusing to say anything to anyone about precisely what went on with Vera in spite of making her appear all the more guilty, which is due to keeping the audience in suspense rather than convincing them.
Dolores and Selena's relationship is a fractured one, and we see that the daughter is barely keeping her life together with prescription pills, so the last thing she needs is to return to face the past she has buried in the recesses of her mind. That's down to a dark secret that she shares with her mother, although Dolores's secrets go deeper than Selena's, and it's all to do with her father (David Strathairn) who died in mysterious circumstances when the daughter was thirteen. Nobody was ever convicted of his murder, but as the finger of suspicion had landed on the wife, rumours have followed her ever since, and it's clear that something happened all those years ago that, again, she's not going to talk about.
If there's a theme here, it's one of sisterhood and how women have to bear up under the brunt of male mistreatment. Dolores was beaten by her husband, and after she returned the wrong after being hit too many times, he found other ways to channel his frustrations and malevolence: into Selena. Now grown up, she has blanked out what he did to her, and in an issue of the week TV movie style of narrative, she has to face up to what he did to her if she wants to move on. This involves her mother confessing to her, but not to the police, represented by Christopher Plummer in yet another mean-minded man role - this film is full of them. If you think that the manhating is laid on a bit too thick (only John C. Reilly approaches decency, and he's hardly in this), which is odd coming from a male director and writers, then they do at least seem sincere, and it's set out as being from the perspective of the victimised women so you shouldn't be surprised that the solution it finds for problem blokes is to kill them as a last resort; as there are no other options explored, it's hard to agree with the message that two wrongs do indeed make a right. Music by Danny Elfman.