- The Hours (2002) movie review: Nicole Kidman as author Virginia Woolf, and Meryl Streep as an updated, Americanized version of Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, deliver superlative performances in Stephen Daldry and David Hare’s deeply flawed yet profoundly moving psychological drama.
- A couple of other major positive elements in The Hours: Philip Glass’ unrelenting – and unrelentingly haunting – score and Seamus McGarvey’s lyrical cinematography.
- The Hours earned Nicole Kidman the Best Actress Academy Award. It was shortlisted in eight other categories, including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Julianne Moore), Supporting Actor (Ed Harris), and Adapted Screenplay.
The Hours movie review: Meryl Streep & Nicole Kidman + Philip Glass score are highlights in flawed yet moving drama
Based on Michael Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare’s multiple Academy Award-nominated The Hours movie adaptation uses Virginia Woolf’s classic 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway (working title: “The Hours”) as the link that binds its three lead female characters over the course of one momentous day:
- Early 1920s English countryside-based author Virginia Woolf.
- Early 1950s (in the book, late 1940s) Los Angeles area housewife Laura Brown.
- Early 21st-century (in the book, late 20th-century) New Yorker Clarissa Vaughnan.
Far apart in time and space, these three troubled women share both the deadness of a life of self-abnegation and the living reality of death itself: Closeted lesbians Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown think of committing suicide; Clarissa Vaughnan is focused on caring for an ex-lover dying of AIDS.
Despite narrative issues, director Daldry’s lapses into melodrama, and one poorly calibrated central performance, The Hours is a thoughtful and profoundly moving achievement. Most of the credit for the film’s success goes to Meryl Streep, outstanding as a 21st-century Mrs. Dalloway; Nicole Kidman, surprisingly effective as the suicidal Virginia Woolf; and Philip Glass, whose haunting score, brimming with longing, is perhaps The Hours’ most crucial element.
Mrs. Dalloway across time & space
The changes in settings as The Hours moves back and forth through spacetime are supposed to both accompany and propel the development of the three disparate but interconnected storylines.
In 1923, the severely depressed Virginia Woolf has begun working on Mrs. Dalloway, in which London society matron Clarissa Dalloway busies herself by planning a party for the evening.
In 1951, California housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is reading Mrs. Dalloway while experiencing in her own life situations found in the book.
In 2001, Manhattan literary editor Clarissa Vaughan is intent on throwing a party; in Vaughan’s case, for her AIDS-stricken former boyfriend, the poet Richard Brown (Ed Harris), to whom she is wholly devoted.
Blank Julianne Moore
Each The Hours segment has its points of interest, but Laura Brown’s plight is hands down the weak link. Apart from the lesbian subplot and the fact that she unfeelingly abandons her young son (who grows up to become Richard Brown), Laura’s predicament is just another perfunctory variation of the cliché about the woman who must find her true self away from the constraints of her male-dominated home.
Julianne Moore’s apathetic (and Oscar-nominated) performance – a far cry from her sensitive portrayal of a similar character in Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven that same year – fails to convey Laura’s inner turmoil as she confronts life-altering dilemmas pitting freedom vs. convention, self-love vs. maternal love, life vs. death.
Instead of playing Laura as a woman whose whirlwind of emotions is buried deep inside – but it’s there – Moore, under Stephen Daldry’s direction, opts to create a character devoid of feelings. Laura’s face is a permanent blank; her expressionless eyes the window into that nothingness.
That’s hardly the way to portray a living human being (not suffering from dementia), let alone a troubled, complex one with whom the viewer is supposed to empathize.
Rage-filled Ed Harris
An extension of Laura’s story, Richard Brown fares no better. One key difference: Whereas Laura is the embodiment of emotional hollowness, Richard is all feeling. That might have worked were if not for the simplistic way the AIDS-suffering character is depicted.
Whenever on screen – and without ever indicating, through his performance, that Richard’s mental faculties are being destroyed by the disease – the usually capable (and Oscar-nominated) Ed Harris sticks to exhibiting varying degrees of rage and fury.
Once again, that’s hardly the way to portray a troubled, complex character with whom the viewer is supposed to empathize.
Pitch-perfect Meryl Streep
On the positive side, The Hours features two-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep (Best Supporting Actress for Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979; Best Actress for Sophie’s Choice, 1982) as the modernized, Americanized Clarissa Dalloway.
Streep soars above the limitations of both her character and her director, handling several melodramatic scenes without ever resorting to either self-pity displays or over-the-top histrionics.
Her Clarissa may be a controlling type – except, that is, when it comes to her own neglected life – but Streep makes a potentially unsympathetic character “likable” by laying bare Clarissa’s vulnerability and her desperate need to give and receive affection.
Poignant Nicole Kidman
Now, throughout her 25-year film career Meryl Streep has created countless great portrayals of all types of women; as a result, one has come to expect artistic excellence from her. Nicole Kidman, however, is a different matter.
Admittedly, she was an effective antiheroine in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 black comedy To Die For, but Kidman’s international movie career has always seemed more like an offshoot of her marriage to Tom Cruise than a byproduct of her on-screen achievements. Following a much hyped (and mannered), Oscar-nominated performance in Baz Luhrmann’s musical Moulin Rouge!, she reveals a quieter, more introspective side in The Hours.
Helping Kidman appear less plasticky than in previous roles (including her destitute heroine in Cold Mountain) is the prosthetic nose attached to her face. It’s unclear whether this particular bit of make-up possessed magical properties, but the actress – though no Virginia Woolf replica – has never looked as interesting or acted as movingly.
With a glance, she is able to convey in heartbreaking fashion Woolf’s yearning for freedom from her stifling life, while her deeper, almost somber tones reflect the character’s precarious psychological state.
Finally, to Nicole Kidman belong The Hours’ two emotional highlights: The first, when Woolf and her niece, while in the midst of a lush forest, focus on the the body of a lifeless bird, a symbol of the ever-present reality of death; the second, at the film’s end, when death itself engulfs Woolf in the waters of the River Ouse. (Virginia Woolf actually killed herself at age 59 in 1941, 16 years after the publication of Mrs. Dalloway.)
While those and other scenes in The Hours overflow with beauty and poetry – with the assistance of Philip Glass’ music and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s soft, melancholy hues – neither David Hare nor Stephen Daldry fully succeeds in patching up several puzzling holes in the narrative.
For instance, when Ed Harris’ embittered Richard kills himself, this viewer found it impossible to feel any sympathy for him. After all, Richard decides, with what seems like a perfectly clear and cruel head, to jump out the window right in front of Clarissa. That gesture has no immediate motivation, except that a shell-shocked poet in Mrs. Dalloway also jumps out a window to his death.
Clarissa’s relationship with her female lover, Sally (Allison Janney), is another issue. We never learn what made Clarissa search for the companionship of women, considering that her greatest love had been Richard and that she had been married to another man, with whom she had a daughter (a miscast Claire Danes). True, Mrs. Dalloway was probably a lesbian (with a Sally in her past), but this particular mirroring in the 21st-century Clarissa feels contrived.
In addition, there’s the question of whether The Hours is subtly telling us that Richard “became” gay because of his mother’s negligence. Or worse, because he, as a little boy, witnessed Laura kissing the lips of her beloved neighbor, Kitty (Toni Collette). The insinuations are there, even if – mercifully – no overt rationalizations are forthcoming.
Life not ours to live?
In all, even though a number of elements in Daldry and Hare’s The Hours movie adaptation are unsatisfying, the whole is undeniably stirring.
Life, The Hours seems to imply, may not be ours to live. Our fate has been sealed long before we were born. Perhaps Virginia Woolf’s own tragic fate had already been written by another author, in some past century, in some far away place.
A disturbing – and perhaps silly – notion that in no way detracts from the human drama, the magnificent score, and the two first-rate performances The Hours has to offer.
The Hours (2002)
Director: Stephen Daldry.
Screenplay: David Hare.
From Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel.
Cast: Meryl Streep. Nicole Kidman. Julianne Moore. Ed Harris. Toni Collette. Allison Janney. Claire Danes. Jeff Daniels. Stephen Dillane. John C. Reilly. Miranda Richardson. Eileen Atkins. Margo Martindale.
“The Hours Movie (2002) Review” notes
Old Laura Brown
The role had initially been offered to Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Betsy Blair (Marty, 1955), who reportedly turned it down so she could care for ailing husband Karel Reisz (Meryl Streep’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman director).
“The Hours Movie” endnotes
Awards season honors
The Hours won BAFTAs for Best Actress (Nicole Kidman) and Best Score.
In addition, it was the National Board of Review’s Best Film; it earned Julianne Moore the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Actress citation (also for Far from Heaven); and it was the Writers Guild’s Best Adapted Screenplay.
Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Nicole Kidman The Hours movie images: Paramount Pictures | Miramax Films.
“The Hours Movie: Actresses + Score Lift Uneven Psychological Drama” last updated in September 2021.