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
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
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.
Got a comment? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org