In our first review of The Hours, Rachel Graf contemplates death, grief, and repose in the dark of night.
The Hours: Ten Years Later
I only and always want to watch The Hours in the dark of night, and I did just that for this review. Even considering how many of the film’s scenes feature brightly lit outdoor shots, it is a dark movie. I watch it to sink in. The first time I read the novel on which the film is based I stayed up furtively in my dorm room, reading by dim light as my roommate snored.
I can’t say much about the world when The Hours was released. Nor can I provide much recollection about myself, beyond the simple statements that my mother died August of 2002, after which I remained in a fog for a long time. In what turned out to be a good move for my self-preservation, I didn’t actually see the film until 4 years later, so this is a review with a bit less distance than this project’s title suggests, but then again, if we take away only one lesson from it it’s that hours can stretch to fill eternities.
The first pleasure and power in the film for me is its comfort with the maudlin. With death. I have wanted to lie down in the feeling it visualizes, a feeling that I had thought belonged only to me, even and especially as it shows characters lying down in their grief. Their worlds crumble around them and they sink in.
“It is possible to die,” writes Virginia Woolf. This is not the sentiment of pure melancholy. It is possible to let grief surround you, as the waters literally take Woolf and figuratively as the flood momentarily spills around Laura Brown before she decides to breathe.
It is possible to die, and there’s more peace than grief in the realization. Anyone who’s done yoga and enjoyed a Shavasana (corpse pose) knows the pleasure of slipping away from consciousness and the world, letting it go on without our attention.
The Hours is the kind of work that stopped me dead in my tracks (this! this!). This is what I want to read. This is what I want to think about. This is what I want to feel.
When I was first introduced to The Hours, a movie about mothers and lovers who can’t give enough, I was mesmerized by how a mother can love her child and leave, or how she can not love her child? This was a question about my own mother.
Laura Brown reads Virginia Woolf as she struggles with her depression. My mother, born in 1960, read Sylvia Plath the first time she was hospitalized for mental illness. And the story goes, when no one else in the family understood what was wrong, when my mother had no words of her own for it, my grandmother picked up the book of poetry and understood.
I believe in that weave of readership, articulated beautifully in the film. We are connected in our lives by sentiment and yes by words. When there are few people in your life capable of understanding and no one you trust enough to tell, there are still books to read.
Of the three storylines – Virginia Woolf writing Mrs. Dalloway and struggling with her confinement in Richmond (1923), pregnant Laura Brown celebrating her husband’s birthday with her son while she contemplates suicide (1951), and Clarissa Vaughn preparing a party for her former lover Richard Brown who is driven mad by AIDS (2001) – it is Laura Brown’s story that resonates most strongly for me.
Or rather it is the story of Laura and her young son Richie. Part of the beauty of this relationship is how it draws the viewer in to both characters’ suffering. I pity and blame both. In fact, this is true of every single character in the film; almost every character hurts someone else (usually bitterly, but not deliberately) and I identify with each of them.
For Laura, the tasks of 1950s motherhood are too much. She knows that she is supposed to be happy. She knows she is “lucky” to have a nice family and a nice house. And yet she finds it all difficult. Julianne Moore plays Laura Brown as if filling each set is invisible mud, through which she slowly trudges, checking with each step for divots. When Laura struggles to make a presentable birthday cake she hears “it’s not that hard.” This rebuke comes not only from her friend and fellow homemaker Kitty, but crushingly also from her young son.
Laura is not happy. She, like the cake, is not right. Richie knows this. His fear is palpable. His dogged devotion to her is at once touching and terrifying. It’s hard not to feel suffocated along with Laura as little Richie appears always on the verge of tears, begging to stay with her at every moment. When Laura drops him off at a neighbor’s house for the afternoon, Richie runs screaming after the car as if he’ll never see her again.
The thing is, he’s not entirely wrong. He is terrified his mother will leave him, and a few months later she will. The afternoon in the film, Laura goes to a hotel with bottles of pills in her purse. Richie is young and helpless, but not oblivious. I empathize with that feeling. A little child screaming at the top of its lungs for its mother to stay. I can relate.
I empathize too with Laura: “There are times when you don’t belong and you think you’re going to kill yourself. Once I went to a hotel. Later that night I made a plan. The plan was I would leave my family when my second child was born. And that’s what I did. I got up one morning, made breakfast, went to the bus stop, got on a bus. I’d left a note…It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear. There it is. No one’s going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life.”
There are many kinds of death. Life is ripe with its possibility, and sometimes death is what someone else calls life. Laura’s husband Dan tells their son that he dreamed of bringing his wife “to a house, to a life. The thought of this life, that’s what kept me going. I had an idea of our happiness.” It isn’t only the happiness that he imagined for Laura that isn’t there. It’s his own as well. He wills her to be happy so that he can too.
How is it possible to love a partner and destroy the life he wants to make for you? It’s not only Laura who does this. Virginia Woolf repeatedly thwarts her husband Leonard’s attempts to give her a peaceful life before ultimately killing herself. Likewise, Richard Brown refuses “to go on living” for Clarissa.
The Hours‘ wonderful direction and acting spark profound sympathy for these characters that loved and cared and are left behind: Leonard, Dan, Clarissa. In multiple scenes we see each character struggle for the right words and suppress their anguish in front of their beloveds. In Clarissa especially, we see the consequences of grief spilling over into other relationships. Richie isn’t the only character to sense that a loved one might be leaving him forever. Like Richie after Laura, Leonard runs urgently after Virginia when she leaves the house unannounced, attempting to take the train to London.
Isn’t it possible that Leonard, Dan and Clarissa each mean to help their loved ones, but don’t? In her suicide note, Virginia Woolf tells her husband, “I know that I am spoiling your life,” but she doesn’t mean that killing herself she will ruin him. On the contrary, “…without me you could work. And you will I know…I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.”
Laura Brown says, “I abandoned my children. They say it’s the worst thing a mother can do.” When I first saw The Hours, I would have agreed that abandonment is the worst thing a person can do to someone they love, to someone they are supposed to love. But it isn’t.
When Richard tells Clarissa that he had been staying alive for her and doesn’t want to anymore, she responds, “That’s what we do. We stay alive for each other.” But, a person cannot live his life simply for the benefit of another person, because that isn’t really living. For Virginia and Richard the choice is not life or death, but life as death or death itself. What’s more, I don’t think Virginia and Richard are completely wrong to think Leonard and Clarissa might live better without having to take care of them, especially Clarissa who seems to have made Richard her life’s mission.
It wasn’t my intention here to written an apology for suicide, but I can’t judge the film’s characters for their choice. The Hours does not judge them. The sentiment “they’ll be better off without me” is not all self-loathing, and sometimes it has some truth in it. It is possible to love another person and show it only by leaving, when staying would do you both harm.
If years ago The Hours seemed to me to about how a person can love and leave, my question now is what does it mean to be left behind and go on living? What does it mean to leave the people you
love are supposed to love and go on living? Two characters in the film make the choice to die, but they are not the only ones who leave people behind.
Louis Waters is a minor, but significant character in the film. He was Richard’s lover from the time Richard and Clarissa were in love as teenagers until many years later. Richard chose Louis over Clarissa, and Louis left him. Afterwards, Richard got sick and Clarissa took care of him, all along resenting the fact that she hadn’t been the person Richard loved most.
We don’t know much about why Louis leaves Richard. We might imagine that as an adult he retains some of that excessive need he displayed as a child. Louis says, “The day I left him I got on a train and made my way across Europe. I felt free for the first time in years.” And we know that he makes a new life in San Francisco, complete with a much younger lover (his student no less).
The film ends with the question of how to go on living largely unresolved. Louis goes on. Laura went on to make a new life as well, but neither escaped unscathed. The scars of loss also show on Richard, who has his mother kill herself in his “difficult” novel. But still, he goes on living for quite a long time.
We go on living with our memories and ours scars. We carry people who are no longer with us, whether by our choice, theirs or neither. Just as Richard and Clarissa each remember a morning when she stepped out of the house and he came up behind her, there are moments of happiness that anchor us to the past, and provide comfort as we go forward.
One final thought on how thoroughly queer this movie is and how somehow every time I watch it forgetting that it’s a film about queer people. I notice, but don’t remark much that each of the main characters is at least implicitly bi- or homo-sexual. I think that is how more movies, and hell the world, should be. There are hints in The Hours that some characters are uncomfortable with and questioning their sexuality, but their problems are not written off as queer problems. Maybe Laura would have been much happier if she could have married Kitty instead of Dan, but the film doesn’t allow us to get away so easily. Its drama is thoroughly located in place and time via excellent sets and costumes, but the traumas depicted are not simply of the past.