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HOURS, THE(director: Stephen Daldry; screenwriter: from Michael Cunningham’s novel/David Hare; cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey; editor: Peter Boyle; music: Philip Glass; cast: Meryl Streep (Clarissa Vaughan), Julianne Moore (Laura Brown), Nicole Kidman (Virginia Woolf), Ed Harris (Richard) Brown, Toni Collette (Kitty), Claire Danes (Julia Vaughan), Jeff Daniels (Louis Waters), Allison Janney (Sally Lester), John C. Reilly (Dan Brown), Stephen Dillane (Leonard Woolf), Miranda Richardson (Vanessa Bell), Eileen Atkins (Barbara in the Flowershop), Jack Rovello (Richie Brown as a child), Linda Bassett (Nelly), Sophie Wyburd (Angelica Bell); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Scott Rudin, Robert Fox; Paramount Pictures; 2002)
“This is my kind of film, it’s about suicide, insanity, depression, terminal illness, Aids, and lesbianism.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“The Hours” is adapted from the 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham and is scripted with theatrical-like dramatic flourishes by playwright David Hare to showcase the three brilliant actresses featured: Streep, Moore, and Kidman.

Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughan, is the always busy, nurturing middle-aged literary editor living in 2001 with her lesbian lover Sally (Allison Janney) in an upscale Greenwich Village brownstown. She is devotedly nursing her award winning poet/novelist friend and ex-lover, Richard Carrouthers (Ed Harris), who is dying of Aids. Behind her smiles she is hiding her sadness by living vicariously through Richard and hiding her life disappointments. That is something Richard is aware of and likes to ride her about in an affectionate way. He nicknames her Mrs. Dalloway after the heroine in Virginia Woolf’ novel, as she already has Dalloway’s first name and is in reality similar to that character except for being sexually liberated. She is busy drowning herself in other people’s lives to avoid facing her own, but is educated to the point that she understands the depth of Woolf’ novel–so remains able to fence with her inner demons and anguish as a modern woman who is able to enjoy the changes in society’s attitude towards woman by taking advantage of her new freedoms (her saving grace over Mrs. Dalloway). Like the book, she awakens to push up her hair in a knot, have breakfast, buy buckets of roses, and prepare for a party she’s throwing to honor Richard’ lifetime poetry achievements.

Julianne Moore as Laura Brown is a secretly unhappy wife, planning to commit suicide with sleeping pills in a hotel room because she’s drowning in her family life. Even though Laura has a young impressionable son who depends wholly on her, Richie (Rovello as the child, Harris as the grown-up), and is pregnant, and living in the prosperous post-WW11 era in 1951, in Los Angeles, with her kindly dependable but uncultured husband Dan (John C. Reilly). He returned from the war and married the girl he dreamed about in the trenches. But Laura is only living out his dreamlife and doesn’t love him in return. Dan worships his wife and house and the American Dream of riches, but Laura can’t converse with him on an equal footing and doesn’t care about the things he does. Laura has started reading the novel Mrs. Dalloway, which gives her hope she can escape from her family trap despite her fragile nature. Laura will leave Richard with a neighbor the day she plans her suicide and takes off in her car without him despite Richie’s temper tantrum spilling out to the street over her leaving him alone. But, through her connection with the Mrs. Dalloway character, Laura decides instead of killing herself to abandon the family after her baby girl is born and escapes to Canada to start life over as a librarian. Richie has been tormented by her abandonment his entire life, and always remains transfixed as that same scared child afraid to love someone, despite all his accomplishments, because they might also leave. Laura also interacts with her perky neighbor Kitty (Collette) by kissing her fully on the lips, but Kitty refuses to recognize that as a gesture of love and brushes it off as just a kiss of affection–as the film points out how easy it is to ignore the truths about ourselves, that in all probability Laura should have further explored having a lesbian relationship instead of ignoring her urges (except the 1950s was a tough time to be a pioneer in woman’s lib). Kitty finally lets go of her brave cheer and tells Laura she’s scared stiff that she might have cancer. Laura, who has always been viewed as a monster by Richard, will turn up in the present to meet Clarissa as an old lady, a ghost from the past, and her acting will be less mannered than from the earlier scenes as she meets Clarissa for the first time and also meets Clarissa’s adopted adult daughter Julia (Danes). She gets a chance to tell her side of things in her own voice, which is understandable only from a skewed feminist point of view.

The film’s centerpiece story is about Virginia Woolf (the book centered on the other two women). She is played by an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman (she wears a prosthetic nose to look like the author). The other two women are connected to her through identifying with the character she writes about in her first novel. Mrs. Dalloway is leading a humdrum life as an upper-class English lady, and is married to a member of Parliament. She is the hostess of a party and hides the unhappiness inside her by outwardly acting cheerful, but goes through life loveless and lonely. The moody author is living in 1923 in Richmond (a nearby suburb of London) a place she hates but her husband insists on because London, according to the recommendations of the doctors, is too dangerous a place for her unbalanced state of being as she is battling with her insanity and is attempting to write the novel which was published in 1925. While living with her overprotective but loving publisher husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane), she is cut off from worldly contacts and the only visitor is her bourgeois sister (Miranda Richardson) and three kids, with the youngest of her children, the only girl (Wyburd), being the one the author has the most affection for and the only one who doesn’t poke fun at her faraway look. After her success as a novelist and her battle to live through the hours (The Hours was the original title of Mrs. Dalloway) with the help of her supportive husband, she loses her battle with insanity and severe mood-swings by drowning herself in 1941 in the muddy Ouse River in Sussex. Also, Woolf was reportedly a bisexual, something the movie only hints at.

This is my kind of film, it’s about suicide, insanity, depression, terminal illness, Aids, and lesbianism. The Hours title refers to all the time there is in a day to occupy oneself with when getting out of bed, the long hours one must battle daily to find a reason to live. For Woolf death is a natural return to where one came from. When her hubby asks her why she must kill off the characters in her book–she responds “Someone has to die so the rest of us can value life more.” Woolf also indicates poets must die gloriously because they are visionaries and they provide others an example on how valuable one’s life is, as she holds no illusion that her thoughts can be digested by the masses… but… they can all understand death.

The film captures the spirit of the Woolf novel, but not in its entirety. In its attempt to be contemporary it reinvents and thereby somewhat cheapens Woolf and her art to a purely feminist one. Though it is performed with delicacy and feeling, especially, by the capable Kidman, who catches Woolf’ mannerism but without being able to unlock the doors to her perceptions. What “The Hours”can never get at other than unmasking some of the author’s eccentric characteristics is Woolf’s thought process and what makes her puzzling as a writer, and what propels her to rebel at the mediocrity of society even though she wishes she were not so driven so that she too could also be drawn to the ordinary. No matter how well acted, masterfully directed, or amazingly scripted, the British author at the film’s end is still a mystery that this fine film can’t crack. But, nevertheless, it’s a work of high-art, yet it is still not so forbidden or radical a work that it can’t be something the Oscar people would be frightened off of completely despite the risky subject matter. This film still has a PG-13 rating. The studio heads crave such noble projects in their attempt to show that they can at times not be just crass money-making moguls. I think this film will do very well come Oscar night in many different categories, and deservedly so I may add.

One of the performances that caught me most off guard in a most positive way was Jeff Daniels’ subtle one as Louis Waters, the literature prof from San Francisco and ex-lover of Richard, who in his brief time on-screen shows up at Clarissa’s apartment for Richard’s party after not seeing her and him for many years. Louis rekindles both the sense of forlorn and hopeful grit that all the major characters are stuck on, but does it in a natural way with his unique brand of humanity that is not mannered like all the other performances. This is in contrast, in particular, to Harris’ performance, which suffers only because he seems to be exerting himself too much as I could actually see the wheels in his head turning.

Of the three stories, the most powerful and important one was Virginia Woolf’; it’s arguably Kidman’s finest performance to date, as she agonizes over the voices she constantly hears and is adrift in the loneliness of her inner world and can’t be revived despite the love her hubby shows. Kidman also had the most poignant line in the film: “You do not find peace by avoiding life.” Streep had the easiest role to accomplish and does her usual top-notch nuanced job, while Moore’ performance is also grand, but it seems identical to her “Far From Heaven” role and it doesn’t appear to be a greatly challenging one. The Hours excels in letting the women express their feelings and searching out a reason for them to live an unconventional life that seems to be the only way they can find peace of mind, but all that is replaced with unhappiness without love.

Noted English theater director Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot“) does a fine job of seamlessly interconnecting the separate stories about the three women from different time periods who are searching for meaning in their lives. Each is alive at a different time and place; all are linked by their death wishes and their living fears and by identifying with the character of Mrs. Dalloway. Philip Glass’ rich musical score magically fits the somber mood with an added tone of unease (another theme of the film, but this one is best accomplished through the music).

The Hours is also a surprisingly uplifting film, especially considering how somber its theme is and that two graphic suicides take place.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”