the hours

2002

Directed by: Stephen Daldry
Written by: David Hare

The unfilmable novel. That's what Michael Cunningham's The Hours was called in Hollywood. Any attempt at a film adaptation was either going to be spectacularly good, or spectacularly awful.

The anticipation before this film's release was palpable - could it be pulled off? Could the script ever do justice to the novel? Would the audience even understand what was going on? Can you sell a literary masterpiece to a pop-soaked public?

I wasn't very optimistic when the advance press focussed more and more often on Kidman's nose prosthetic than the substance of the film. But soon better press did eventually arrive. The idea of Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore cast together in the same film excited me more than I can tell you, as these ladies can act the pants off anyone else in Hollywood, male or female. And yet, when the time for awards came, it was Kidman who pulled out the Oscar.

Regardless of who won or who got nominated for what, 2002 was the year of Julianne Moore. Having already stunned and amazed the world in such films as Boogie Nights, An Ideal Husband, Magnolia and The End of the Affair, she waltzed in and delivered Far From Heaven and The Hours back to back. Since Far From Heaven has no lesbian content I'll just use this opportunity to say Moore's was one of the greatest all-time performances, certainly better than Kidman's Virginia Woolf - fake nose or not.

OK, that soapboxing over with, I will say that The Hours is a breathtaking piece of cinema.

Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) lives with her husband Leonard in isolated Richmond and longs to return to the society of London. Every day she desperately fights off the mental demons that torture her. Today she begins work on "Mrs Dalloway" a book that is destined to become a classic. With understated elegance, Kidman portrays Woolf as a woman in immense pain that must be shielded from the world. She longs for a society that her mind and constitution cannot handle. She longs for the love, contentment and simplicity of life enjoyed by her sister and her sister's children. She seems to long to be anything but who she is. While doing so she writes the first, famous line from her novel; "Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."

Clarissa (Meryl Streep) steps out into the fine New York weather to buy flowers for a party she is giving that night for her best friend Richard who is receiving a literary award. He is also dying of AIDS. Clarissa has sacrificed a lot to be Richard's friend and to build her own personal walls; she has allowed her daughter (Claire Danes) to become an almost-stranger, she has alienated herself from her partner (the poised and beautiful Alison Janney), yet still she seems happy as she sets out, ready to face the world on this of all days. By the end of the day her entire world will be turned upside down, decimated and unravelled, just like Mrs Dalloway, a nickname Richard affectionately bestowed upon her when they were still young.

Laura (Julianne Moore), a housewife in the fifties, rises to face yet another day of being married, pregnant and looking after her young son, Richie. She doesn't like being married. The household she runs is a pretense, the life she lives a fallacy. She married because that was what women did. What she wants more than anything is time alone to read her book, a copy of Virgina Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway". She wants to be herself. She wants to follow her own heart and live the life she was meant to, not this imposed horror. She receives a visit from a friend, Kitty (Toni Collette - another brilliant cameo role) who must go into hospital and is quietly terrified.

They share a precious moment (as friends? potential lovers?) before Kitty leaves and once again Laura is stuck in her life, only this time with the weight of knowing she could die one day, soon, having never experienced a single one of her own dreams. So why put that day off? She could end it right there, that moment, but with a young son to raise and another on the way is the bravest act to end it all or to continue on and force a change?

During the Virginia Woolf chapters of the novel "The Hours" Virgina conjectured about the ending for Mrs Dalloway. Someone will die at the end, she muses. Virginia isn't sure who it will be. At first it was meant to be Mrs Dalloway herself. She would take her own life. But she doesn't. In the end it is someone else who dies, to remind Mrs Dalloway of the importance of her own life, regardless of how flawed and trivial it seems to be.

In the film there are two people who die. The others live on and they begin to live the way they were meant to. By the time the credits roll we are either immersed in the story or we are absurdly cold to it. I can understand why many were turned off, the movie seems at times like a carefully measured how-to book on winning an Oscar; from the script, to the performances, right down to the startling and imposing score by composer Philip Glass. The actresses seem as self-aware as the language of the book itself, aware of their own acting nuances and all the tricks they use to sway the emotions. We have a story to tell, a grand point to make, and we will make you feel this way. What is so impressive is how well they do it.

I could watch this film a thousand times and still be in equal measures bewitched, surprised and frustrated by it. Is Clarissa's partner having an affair? What was in that unreadable novel Richard wrote and Clarissa doesn't like to talk about? What did Laura do with her life and did she give into her desires for women? So many questions, but the film is that much the better for only answering the questions it chooses to.

Notes: To understand the film it is probably more important for you to have read, or at least know the basic story of, Virgina Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway" than to have had any exposure to the original Michael Cunningham novel.

The extended edition DVD of The Hours is now available which features an amazing feature length commentary by Michael Cunningham and Stephen Daldry, along with with a segment by experts on Virginia Woolf (including Hermione Lee, the author of a critically acclaimed biography of Virginia Woolf). -- Thanks to Mary for the DVD information.

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