The Hours

'The Hours'

I belatedly went to see The Hours, the Virginia Woolf biopic that figures to dominate Oscar night with its trifecta of female stars. The Hours is based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same title, itself an homage to Woolf and her 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The film is thus an adaptation of a novel’s meditation on another novel’s rumination on suicide. Sound complicated? This is one movie you’d love to hear being pitched to the studio execs.

With its daunting leaps in time and place, Cunningham’s novel presents a formidable challenge for a filmmaker, but David Hare’s screenplay is audaciously faithful, giving us far-flung characters joined by thematic and circumstantial threads. Woolf’s novel took a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an English matron hosting a party amid an inner turmoil of unhappiness, and tied it to the simultaneous suicide of another character, the poet Septimus Smith, whom Mrs. Dalloway does not know, but who suffers a similar deep disaffection. These are characters united not by acquaintance, but by psychological affinity and spiritual predicament. The movie, like Cunningham’s novel, takes this conceit and runs with it, intercutting a day in the life of Woolf (Nicole Kidman) during the writing of Mrs. Dalloway with pivotal days in the much later lives of two of her readers: Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a housewife in 1950s Southern California, and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a book editor in Greenwich Village in 2001.

All three women face defining life crises: Woolf, a semi-captive at a country estate where she is being kept by her husband, Leonard, after a series of breakdowns and suicide attempts; the pregnant Laura, jarred by a neighbor’s revelation of cancer into an awareness of her own profound unhappiness; and Clarissa, organizing a party to honor a dear friend and former lover, Richard (Ed Harris), a poet dying of aids. Their brushes with mortality precipitate both of the latter women into a deep unease that verges on panic. Richard, given to baleful truth-telling, offers a take on Clarissa that sums up the original novel’s relevance. "Ah, Mrs. Dalloway," he muses as Streep bustles about his cluttered apartment, trying to help him get ready. "Always giving parties to cover the silence."

The Hours is artfully edited (at times almost too artfully), so that the arrangement of flowers in a vase, or someone answering a door, swings us from England in 1923, to Southern California in 1951, to Manhattan half a century later. The trick mirrors how the film replaces time with theme, uniting the women in a commonality of ideas-suicide as courage; sexual ambiguity; the near-impossibility of happiness; the ultimate reality of aloneness-suggested by Woolf’s life and death and art. Appropriately, there’s no way to sum up this film without recourse to the gloomy and grandiose terminology of modernism: existential despair; alienation; the burden of consciousness.

This is a profoundly literary film, not only in its themes, but in the metaphysics of its structure, which establishes reading as a place where kindred souls (writer and readers) coexist, defying time and death. Yet screenwriter Hare and director Stephen Daldry (whose last effort was a lovely film about childhood and the artistic temperament, Billy Elliot) somehow make this potentially precious material work. Like a modern novel, the movie offers little action. It’s all irony and undertone and dreadful implication, reflecting the modernist challenge of capturing consciousness-"everything contained in a moment," as one character says.

One proviso: to appreciate The Hours, you’ve got to enjoy being bathed in mortality. Though he’s onscreen less often than the women, the character of Richard emerges as central, not only because he figures in a surprise twist, but because we sense that his looming death was what made novelist Cunningham turn to Woolf in the first place. The Hours is haunted by the insistent loneliness of Philip Glass’s minimalist score; by the passage of time; by lost youth and lost love; and by the ever-present option of suicide. "To look life in the face," Kidman reads in a voice-over from Woolf’s suicide note to her husband. "Always to look life in the face-and to know it. To love it for what it is, and then-to put it away."

The Hours bears interesting relation to another of this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Picture, Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s saga of Irish street violence in nineteenth-century Lower Manhattan. For all their obvious dissimilarities in style and scope, the two films offer a transatlantic take on a shared subject, namely, the agonized emergence of the modern: ethnicity and the modern city on the one hand, psychology and the modern sensibility on the other. And like a Scorsese film, The Hours favors character over plot, its intense inwardness creating a feast for its actors. Behind the ballyhooed prosthetic nose that makes her almost unrecognizable, Kidman plays Woolf with a vulnerability so heavily armored by intelligence as to be belligerent. Moore, pale and wan, reprises her Far from Heaven conventional-housewife role, but adds an undercurrent of unarticulated, frantic misery.

These performances are superb, but as Clarissa, Meryl Streep outdoes them. "I seem to be unraveling," Clarissa observes, weeping in her kitchen for reasons she doesn’t quite understand. Streep has always been a chameleonic actress, and here she takes her character into a zone of such intense emotional fluctuation that her face seems to show six emotions at once. Her struggles convey an agonized introspection that the film-written and made by men-offers as Woolf’s example of feminism, her challenging legacy to all women who would live honestly. [end]

Published in the 2003-03-14 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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