Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning The Hours uses Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway (working title: “The Hours”) as the link that binds its three leading female characters. Far apart in terms of time and space, those three disturbed, unhappy women share both the deadness of a life of self-abnegation and the living reality of death itself.
Despite gaps in the narrative, Stephen Daldry's stabs at melodrama, and one poor central performance, The Hours stands as an intelligent and deeply 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, alive with longing, is perhaps The Hours' most important character.
Adapted by David Hare, the screenplay moves back and forth in time and space, jumping from the English countryside of the early 1920s to a Los Angeles suburb in the early 1950s, and to New York City at the dawn of the 21st century. The changes in settings both accompany and push forward the development of the three disparate but interconnected storylines.
In 1923, the severely depressed Virginia Woolf (Kidman) creates the characters and the situations found in Mrs. Dalloway. In 1951, Californian housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), is both reading Mrs. Dalloway and experiencing moments from that book in her own life. In 2001, Manhattan book editor Clarissa Vaughan (Streep), like Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway, is intent on throwing a party – in Vaughan's case, for her AIDS-stricken former boyfriend, Richard Brown (Ed Harris), to whom she is wholly devoted.
Each story has its points of interest, though Laura Brown's tale is the one weak link among the three. Apart from the fact that she coldly abandons her young son (who grows up to become Ed Harris' Richard Brown), Laura's predicament is little more than the old cliché about the woman who must find her true self away from the constraints of the male-dominated home. Julianne Moore's apathetic performance (a far cry from her sensitive portrayal in Far from Heaven that same year) fails to convey Laura's inner dilemmas – freedom vs. convention; self-love vs. maternal love.
Instead of playing Laura as a woman whose emotions are all deeply buried inside, Moore opted to create a character devoid of any feelings. Laura's face is a permanent blank; a close look into her eyes merely shows the expression(lessness) of that blankness. That is hardly the way to create a live human being, let alone a complex one with whom the viewer is supposed to empathize.
Another character that failed to win my sympathy was Richard Brown, who, as written and interpreted, comes across as little more than your average movie AIDS victim. Here, the usually capable Ed Harris plays Richard as a three-note character: angry, angrier, angriest. While watching Harris, never did I sense that Richard was having his mental faculties destroyed by the disease.
Meryl Streep, on the other hand, soars above the limitations of both her character and her director, handling several highly melodramatic scenes without ever resorting to either self-pity or over-the-top histrionics. Her Clarissa may be a controlling type – except when it comes to her own neglected life – but Streep makes a potentially unsympathetic character likable by bringing forth Clarissa's vulnerability and her desperate need to both give and receive affection.
Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry's The Hours
Now, throughout her career Meryl Streep has created countless great portrayals of all types of women, so I have come to expect continuous excellence from her. Nicole Kidman, however, is a different matter. True, she displayed a solid comic talent in Gus Van Sant's quirky To Die For back in 1995, but Kidman's film career always seemed more like an offshoot of her marriage to Tom Cruise than a result of her on-screen achievements. Following a much hyped (and quite mannered) performance in Moulin Rouge!, Kidman reveals a quieter, more introspective side of her in The Hours.
As a plus, instead of the plasticky make-up Kidman has used in her other roles (including her destitute heroine in Cold Mountain), she has an ugly fake nose plastered on her face for this one. Whether the fake nose possessed magical properties, I don't know, but Kidman – 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 yearnings for freedom from her constraining life, while her lowered, almost somber tones reflect the precarious psychological state of her character.
Finally, to her belong the two emotional highlights of the film: the first, when Woolf and her niece, while in the midst of a lush forest, focus on the the body of a dead 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. (Woolf actually killed herself in 1941, sixteen years after the publication of Mrs. Dalloway. She was 59 years old.)
While those and other scenes in The Hours overflow with beauty and poetry (with the assistance of both Philip Glass' music and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's soft, melancholy hues), neither adapter David Hare nor director Stephen Daldry fully succeeds in patching up several puzzling holes in the narrative. (I haven't read Michael Cunningham's book, so I don't know how many – if any – of those inconsistencies are found in the novel.)
When Ed Harris' Richard kills himself, for instance, I felt no sympathy for him. That was partly because I saw him only as a bitter, angry man, but it was mostly because Richard decides, with what seems like a perfectly clear head, to jump out the window right in front of Clarissa. That gesture has no apparent reason, except that a shell-shocked poet in Mrs. Dalloway also jumps out a window to his death.
Clarissa's relationship with her female lover is another major narrative problem. We are never told what made Clarissa search for the companionship of women, considering that her greatest love had been Richard, or that she had been married to another man and had raised a daughter (a poorly cast Claire Danes). True, Mrs. Dalloway was quite probably a lesbian, but this particular connection to the 21st century Clarissa is too tenuous to be convincing.
And finally, I sure hope Hare's screenplay (and/or Cunningham's book) is not subtly telling us that Richard “became” gay because of his mother's negligence. Or worse, because he, as a little boy, witnessed her kissing on the lips of her beloved neighbor, Kitty (Toni Collette). The insinuations are there; but thankfully, no overt rationalizations are forthcoming.
Although a number of elements in The Hours are unsatisfying, the whole packs a major emotional wallop. Life, The Hours implies, 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). Dir.: Stephen Daldry. 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. Scr.: David Hare; from Michael Cunningham's novel.
1 Academy Award Win
Best Actress: Nicole Kidman
8 Academy Award Nominations
Best Direction: Stephen Daldry
Best Supporting Actor: Ed Harris
Best Supporting Actress: Julianne Moore
Best Adapted Screenplay David Hare
Best Original Score: Philip Glass
Best Editing: Peter Boyle
Best Costume Design: Ann Roth