Dolores Claiborne Review
Maine (Nova Scotia, actually), the present day. Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt) is found lying dying at the bottom of her stairs, her long-time maid Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) seemingly about to bash her head in with a rolling pin. She’s arrested for murder. Dolores’s estranged daughter Selena St George (Jennifer Jason Leigh), now a journalist, is called back to help the mother she hasn’t seen in fifteen years. As the days go by, the past is uncovered layer by layer and Selena finds out the truth not only about Vera’s death but also that of her own father Joe (David Strathairn) years before.
For some reason Taylor Hackford is never thought of as one of the better directors working within the Hollywood system. He’s perhaps too impersonal to be an “auteur” (it’s clear from his commentary that Hackford doesn’t subscribe to that theory anyway), but at his best he’s a very competent craftsman, and his better films are able, intelligent entertainment, despite a tendency to longwindedness. (Note the consistent two-hour-plus running times, in some cases considerably plus.) Dolores Claiborne is one of his best films, and one of the two handfuls of good Stephen King adaptations. I haven’t read the original novel, which is narrated in first person by Dolores. Tony Gilroy’s script abandons any narration in favour of a complex, unchronological structure. That this doesn’t become confusing is down to Hackford and his collaborators (production designer Bruno Rubeo, cinematographer Gabriel Beristain). The scenes in the present are dominated by a cold blue tone, the past in warmer, brighter colours, and the transitions between the two are often seamlessly done. The mystery of Joe’s death is resolved during an impressively achieved CGI total solar eclipse. (As an aside, Hackford claims that it’s impossible to film a genuine eclipse, but Richard Fleischer did just that for the crucifixion sequence of his 1962 film Barabbas.) With strong performances from the entire cast, Dolores Claiborne holds your attention from start to finish.
This DVD has an anamorphic picture in the original ratio of 2.35:1. As usual with Warner’s DVDs, it’s a very good transfer, with the film’s distinctive colour scheme coming over strongly. However there are aliasing problems, which occur just enough to be distracting in places.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Surround (the English original, French and Italian dubs). According to the end credits the film was released in two digital formats, Dolby Digital and SDDS, so why we don’t get a 5.1 mix I don’t know. That said, it isn’t the busiest of soundtracks, the surrounds being mostly used by Danny Elfman’s score, but it might have benefited from the sharpness of a digital mix. The dialogue is very important, and it’s always clear.
This being a Warners back-catalogue release, there aren’t many extras. The main one is Hackford’s commentary. He spends a lot of time thanking and namechecking his cast and crew, but his commentary is confident and well-sustained over the two hours plus of the film. He goes into detail about the technical aspects of the film – the different colour schemes for past and present were achieved using different film stocks (Fuji and desaturated Kodak respectively, if you’re interested). Disappointingly he refers to the DVD having deleted scenes (such as the inquest, late on), but not on this edition it doesn’t. Maybe there will be a “collector’s edition” in years to come? The only other extra is the trailer, in 16:9 anamorphic and running 2:11. As usual, it features shots from most key scenes in the film, but not really spoilers out of context. There are thirty-two chapter stops.
Dolores Claiborne was moderately successful without being a huge hit on its release. DVD offers you a chance to revisit (or as in my case, discover) a film that holds up well on the quality front, though this DVD isn’t the best showcase for it.