In our second re-view of The Hours, Jessica Campbell tells us why sad hours seem long to the film’s inhabitants, and why the performances themselves seem so timeless.
Not surprisingly, The Hours is fundamentally a movie about time. Which makes it particularly appropriate for a Ten Years Ago review. Ultimately, though, as I’ll discuss later, I found my reaction to the film very nearly unchanged ten years after the first viewing. Nothing struck me as particularly dated, and I literally spent no time thinking about other roles the various actors have played in the past decade.
In her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf conducted an experiment: she confined the events of the story to a single day in her heroine’s life. Michael Cunningham adopted this technique for his 1998 novel The Hours (named after one of Woolf’s draft titles for Mrs. Dalloway). Cunningham took the strategy a step further by interweaving three storylines: in 1923, Virginia Woolf begins to write Mrs. Dalloway while living in Richmond, England because doctors have deemed London too strenuous for her precarious mental health; in 1951, Laura Brown begins reading Mrs. Dalloway on the day she decides to flee her stifling life as a middle-class Los Angeles housewife with a young child, Richie, and a baby on the way; in 2001, Clarissa Vaughan, who echoes Clarissa Dalloway’s first name and love of entertaining, prepares for a party she is hosting that night in honor of the complicated love of her life, a poet dying of AIDS – Richard Brown, Laura’s Richie all grown up. We get the three storylines in bits and pieces, as each day gradually proceeds to evening. The Clarissa of Mrs. Dalloway passes a fairly ordinary day in party preparations, encountering her husband, a couple of old friends, and her daughter Elizabeth, who has embarked on a friendship with an older woman Clarissa doesn’t trust. But the novel also recounts the day of Septimus Warren Smith, a shattered Great War veteran who kills himself at the end of the novel. Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness novel exquisitely portrays the sights, sounds, and feelings of everyday life. Cunningham has written about stumbling on Mrs. Dallowaysomewhere on the shelves of the very sub-par library of his teenage years. It was this novel that made him a reader and inspired him to write himself.
I can understand why. When The Hours was released in late 2002 (early 2003 in my ever-slow-on-the-uptake hometown), I was a sophomore in high school and had barely begun to read “adult” books. I had devoured the Lord of the Rings books the year before, which led to an obsession with Peter Jackson’s series of movies. I’d gone to see Moulin Rouge! and A Beautiful Mind in 2001 primarily in order to check out the competition for the Best Picture Oscar. Initially, The Hours drew me for the same reason. As with the 2001 films, though, it blew me away on its own merits. Immediately after seeing it, I got my hands on Cunningham’s novel, and then Mrs. Dalloway itself. I read most of Virginia Woolf’s novels over the next year, and I started reading her letters and diaries – a project I’m still involved in, though I don’t dip into those collections as frequently as I’d like. Mrs. Dalloway remains one of the few novels from which I can quote fairly lengthy passages. I used (and referenced, of course) some of Woolf’s language for a college admissions essay in which I talked about a trip to London of my own.
All this is to say that my first viewing of The Hours set off a uniquely substantial aesthetic and intellectual trajectory. I’ve seen the movie a couple of times in the interim, and I often do reading and writing work to the strains of Philip Glass’s hauntingly repetitive soundtrack. Two of the movie’s most crucial and most difficult themes—mental illness and death—unfortunately entered my life in various ways over the last ten years, and I think I furrowed my brow a bit harder in a couple of places. By and large, though, I can’t accurately say what we often do in these reviews: “Now that I, like Character A, have experienced x, y, and z, such and such a scene is more powerful.” At first I wondered about this. Then I realized why: it’s because this movie was so extraordinarily powerful the first time, even when I couldn’t relate personally to many of its themes, that it affects me pretty much the same way now, in spite of changes in my own perspective.
While it would be nice to adopt the role of Incisive Critic, I honestly have nothing negative to say about The Hours. First, there are of course the Big Things. And I don’t just mean Nicole Kidman’s infamous prosthetic nose. I also mean her rightly Oscar-winning performance as Virginia, Julianne Moore’s turn as Laura, and Meryl Streep’s as Clarissa. God, I miss the Nicole Kidman of those years – after splitting up with Tom Cruise, she turned in top-notch performances in Moulin Rouge! in 2001, The Hours in 2002, and Cold Mountain in 2003 (those are just the highlights). I guess I’m glad she’s happier now, but she certainly was a testament to the excellence that results when an artist’s personal life goes to pieces and she throws herself into her work. The prosthetic nose is not the only reason you forget that Virginia Woolf is Nicole Kidman. Much of what she needs to express is quiet distress and intense concentration; you can see the wheels turning in her head, but always from the subtlest of movements. Woolf, who struggled with mental illness most of her life, already had a couple of nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts under her belt by 1923 (she would kill herself in 1941, an event with which the movie begins and ends). She also had written three novels and had developed a reputation as a reviewer for London’s Times Literary Supplement. That all adds up to a hell of a lot of mental activity; but Kidman, wisely, never overdoes it. Case in point: when she opens her notebook in the morning, having received permission to write instead of eating breakfast, and thinks about her first sentence. She’s sitting still, but as she forms the words, there’s a light in her eyes that captures the delight that accompanies success in the creative process.
Meanwhile, Julianne Moore portrays a life of even quieter desperation as Laura Brown, who goes through all the motions a ‘50s housewife should but can’t quite make the pieces of a complete life come into place (as symbolized, of course, by the fact that she can’t make the birthday cake for her husband look right). Her husband loves her and treats her well; her young son is sweet and well-behaved. She can’t articulate why she is so miserable, why she keeps bursting into tears. At one point in the day, she seriously considers suicide, going so far as to check into a hotel room with a bag full of pills. But ultimately she just reads her book and lies quietly for a while; it isn’t life in general in that is unendurable, only the life she happens to be leading at the moment. We find out later, when she enters the Clarissa Vaughan plotline as the elderly mother of Richard, that she decides that day to leave her family after the birth of the second child. Which is precisely what she does, in a move absolutely unforgiveable by the society of that era, perhaps of any era. Laura may not know what’s wrong with her, but Moore looks so lifeless and lost that you believe in her distress.
It seems the time to acknowledge that I’m well aware that some may say I ought to treat these issues more “critically” as White People Problems, or First World Problems, or what you will. But these women aren’t bemoaning the higher prices of their Netflix accounts (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, Google “Jason Alexander Netflix Relief Fund.” Seriously.). They’re dealing with death and depression and insanity, and with a society that tells them they ought to be happy. Yep, they’re all white, and they’re all financially secure. But the fact remains that they’re stuck. Virginia is shepherded by doctors, well-nigh forced to live in a sleepy suburb instead of the fast-paced London whose social and intellectual offerings can satisfy the demands of an extremely active mind. Laura got married after the war because, well, someone asked her, and what else was she going to do in 1945? Clarissa Vaughan, meanwhile, is stuck not so much in a lifestyle as on a person: Laura’s son Richard, who has just won a poetry prize but has lost so much of his mental and physical fitness that he can barely stand to get from day to day. Clarissa and Richard had had something of a love affair in their youth, but Richard had ultimately left her for a man, and she has since moved on to a female life partner, Sally. But Richard is alone now, and Sally clearly feels somewhat lost in the shuffle as Clarissa spends more and more time nursing and worrying about Richard. Clarissa keeps it together amid the chaotic party preparations, but she loses it when Richard’s onetime male lover, Louis, arrives early from out of town and begins to talk about the past. Like Laura, she says she doesn’t know why she’s crying. But unlike Laura (and like the heroine of Woolf’s novel), Clarissa is fundamentally all right. Richard’s death before the party is a tragedy for her, but it is also a relief. And the arrival of his mother, whom Clarissa had never met, somehow helps tie up the loose ends of the story of Richard’s life. After talking with Laura about her decision to leave Richard and his sister, Streep’s Clarissa seems to relax for the first time in the movie. She kisses Sally (again, the first time we’ve seen this) and goes to bed, ready for another day. In a voiceover, Kidman reads the end of Virginia’s suicide letter to her husband: “Always to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is. At last, to know it. To love it for what it is. And then to put it away.”
And so we come at last to the Small Things. (Other Big Things include the direction of Stephen Daldry, the largely faithful-to-the-novel screenplay of David Hare, and the editing of Peter Boyle, all of which work quite well.) Richard despairs of having to “face the hours. And the hours after that.” This movie is about the hours that make up a day – the small incidents, objects, and encounters that make up a life. Really, Richard is marked to leave the world of the living from very early on; it’s in the morning that he muses, “I seem to have fallen out of time.” He can’t keep the days straight; he has no interest in eating; he has no link to the outside world other than Clarissa. The other characters relate intimately to objects. Clarissa buys the flowers herself. Laura savors the words of her book. Virginia takes an interest in a dying bird that her sister’s children discover when the family visits Virginia for tea. In one of the movie’s most quietly beautiful moments, Virginia and her niece sit by the bird while she dies and place yellow flowers around her. The little girl eventually runs off to play, but Virginia lies down and looks the bird in the face – a moment of communion enhanced by shot-countershot closeups and a bittersweet segment of Glass’s score. This encounter clearly affects Virginia; she is distracted at tea later on, musing when her sister asks that she has decided not to kill off Clarissa, but Septimus instead. In answer to the question of why any character has to die at all, she replies, “Someone must die in order that the rest of us will value life more.” Virginia herself is bursting to let the sights and sounds of life in again; she tells her husband, Leonard, that if given the choice between Richmond and death, “I choose death.” Life without the accoutrements of the hours is no life at all. Virginia does receive a promise from her husband later that evening that they will move back to London, even though we know that eighteen years later she will actually choose death.
As crushing as the subject matter is, the movie is beautiful. The music and yellow flowers mentioned above are only two of the plethora of sensuous details to be found. The rooms these women inhabit are cluttered with the details of life. The costumes are subtle but attractive. The stories draw attention to flowers, food, drink, the weather. Most important are the people who surround the protagonists; the supporting cast is phenomenal. Stephen Dillane consistently displays the mixture of pity, admiration, love, and frustration that Leonard Woolf feels toward his wife. John C. Reilly takes on the thankless role of Laura’s unwanted husband (something of a pattern for him – I give youChicago and The Good Girl) and nails the loving obliviousness with which he sees Laura. Toni Colette knocks it out of the park as Laura’s friend Kitty. In contrast to Laura’s disheveled hair and frowsy housedress, Kitty comes to the door wearing a low-cut dress with perfect jewelry and hair to match. “You’re reading a book!” she comments to Laura with mild mockery. But it turns out that Laura’s description of Clarissa Dalloway applies to Kitty: “Maybe because she’s confident everyone thinks she’s fine, but she isn’t.” After the small talk, Kitty has to get to business: she has come to ask Laura to feed the dog while she goes into the hospital to be treated for uterine cancer. Kitty breaks down into tears, apologizing all the while; Laura comforts her and kisses her on the mouth, stunned immediately after at her own behavior. Kitty simply says “you’re sweet” and dries her eyes. After this brief letting down of her guard, Kitty puts the mask back on: Laura asks, “You didn’t mind?” and she replies, “Mind what?”, flashing a red-lipsticked, million-dollar smile as she hurries out the door. Colette’s expressions in the two emotional states are like night and day. Thus the veneer of the 1950s and what lies behind it.
The meatiest supporting role in the film goes to Ed Harris, heartbreaking as the dying adult Richard. His speech, his eye movements, his standing or walking – all seem unsteady. My mother, who participated in the re-watch with me, commented that she got from Harris the impression that he smelled bad. The guy is a sick, addled mess, but he also reveals a great deal of love for Clarissa and a wealth of frustrated literary ambition. When he tells Clarissa that he thinks he really has only been staying alive to satisfy her, we aren’t as stunned as she is. But his deliberate fall out the dingy apartment window is still striking, even when you already know it is going to happen. In this respect, Richard fulfills the role of Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway – as Woolf says in her part of the movie, the one who will die is “the poet – the visionary.” We don’t get to know Richard as well as we do Virginia – another writer whose suicide we witness in this movie – but Harris manages to make us understand his pain and mourn his passing over the course of very little time.
Meryl Streep is also surrounded by the very capable Allison Janney as her partner, Jeff Daniels as Richard’s ex-lover Louis Waters, and Claire Danes as Clarissa’s daughter, Julia. Daniels breezes into Clarissa’s apartment in the same rather clumsy, self-assured way he clearly had entered Clarissa and Richard’s life. But Danes is my favorite supporting player, running up her mother’s stairs and shedding her backpack in proper college-student-coming-home fashion. She’s very pragmatic; she gets to work instantly to help with the party preparations and brings a refreshing outsider’s perspective to the proceedings. “You can’t see that Louis Waters is weird?” she asks. “All the ghosts are assembling for the party!” Danes acts right at home in the apartment and in conversation with Streep, every bit as lively and open as Richard is enervated and closed off. But when Clarissa admits that she only feels she is living when she is with Richard, Julia moves through what looks like an old familiar hurt to a solicitous sympathy for her mother. It’s a lot of range for a short scene, and Danes hits all the right notes.
Virginia Woolf wanted her readers to forget about linear time, if only for a few moments, and abandon themselves to everyday emotional and sensuous impressions. Thanks to the vibrant visuals, the committed acting performances, and the mesmerizing score that unites the storylines, The Hoursoffers viewers an opportunity for just that kind of absorption. I thoroughly enjoyed plunging in once again, and I recommend the experience to anyone, whether you’ve already tested the waters or not.