Despite the furious orchestral blasts and overheated froth of its trailer, The Hours is not intense, but rather an unsettling drama about the things we can't find the words to say. Think more lyrical tone poem than melodramatic passion play.
As with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Cunningham novel it's based on, the film opens with an eerie prologue set in Sussex, England, in 1941, the year novelist Virginia Woolf killed herself. Surrounded by winter blues and autumn melancholy, the muted palette of a profound despair, Woolf bends beside a stream, selects a stone, and places it in her pocket. Next she walks quickly and deliberately into the rushing water, and without a sound, drowns herself.
As she does this, we hear her reading her suicide note on the narration. It's to her husband. What she tells him is both sincere and tender, and at odds with the lonely act we're watching: “I don't think two people could have been as happy as we have been.”
Then The Hours really gets depressing. Or drearily tasteful. Or extraordinarily pensive and sober for a Hollywood prestige picture explicitly designed to land awards. Take your pick; I say it's all three: intelligent, sort of ham-handed, and seriously intent on exploring loneliness and death. Woolf foreshadows much in flashbacks, explaining the events of her first book, but hinting at uneasy truths: “Someone has to die, so that the rest of us can value life more.” It is a movie not afraid to address how frighteningly alone we can feel.
If it weren't for her willowy body, Nicole Kidman would be unrecognizable as Woolf. She wears a floppy hat and loose dress, narrows her eyes to mean, tortured specks, and hides behind a long prosthetic nose. There are a few good reasons to see this sometimes devastating, more-often maddeningly placid meditation on life; Kidman is the best reason.
Slithering through scenes, hiding in rooms like a house cat, watching from a distance, Kidman pounces with feverish intent and bites down hard on Woolf's anguish. For a role that's all cognition and internal turbulence, she brings surprising urgency. Her Woolf is a woman fighting the faulty wiring of her own brain, whose moods can't be reasoned with, who prefers the company of her own thoughts but can't bear to hear what they have to say. Though, if we didn't know her sad story, one might assume that Woolf was being driven mad by the film's churning Philip Glass score that serves as a misguided, repetitious counterpoint to a movie forever twisting off in new directions and locating fresh angles.
About the title, The Hours: During the prologue, and sooner than we expect, we come to realize that it will hold a double, even triple, meaning. There are the hours we hold dear; the hours left to live, the ones we covet and lie ahead of us; and for those who find life impossible, for whom love and logic and promise hold no relief, there are the hours that fill up each day like a prison sentence. The film, like the book, gets at this with three scenarios set in three different times about three different women, all dealing with life and suicide, all linked to Woolf's first novel, Mrs. Dalloway, and the title character.
The film has a daunting task, two literary pedigrees to uphold: Cunningham's acclaimed novel and Woolf's 1925 classic, both about interior lives and full of elusive emotions. Not exactly the stuff of successful movie adaptations. Ambitious failures, yes. Remarkably, the film is both ambitious and faithful to the spirit of both books. Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway was a vehicle for the author to tell the story of a woman's life in one day. She bought flowers, had breakfast, prepared for a party, all the time outwardly content, but dying inside, unaware of the people around her. The film, like Cunningham's novel, shows how Woolf's thoughts travel through time, and how during each decade opportunities expand and society changes but certain emotions remain indestructible: alienation, guilt. The film does this with interlocking stories.
The first is about Woolf, removed from London to the country, and her struggle to maintain her sanity as she writes Mrs. Dalloway. The second features Julianne Moore as Laura Brown, a Los Angeles housewife in 1951 reading Mrs. Dalloway, trying not to let on to her adoring family how suffocated she feels. The third story is about Clarissa Vaughn, a contemporary New Yorker (Meryl Streep) rightly nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway by her poet friend, Richard (Ed Harris), who is dying of AIDS. She is fluttery, exhausted from trying to do what's right, planning a party for Richard, wondering whether her life is of consequence.
I read Cunningham's book a couple of years ago, and I think maybe director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott) better conveys what Cunningham was getting at. He splintered each of the women's stories into separate chapters, revolving to each in turn. Daldry and editor Peter Boyle deepen, even improve on Cunningham's idea by finding what it is that a film can do better than print: Namely, they deliver a story that transcends time without having us feel the grinding gears of novelist conceits, or even chapter stops.
Woolf plants a kiss on sister's lips; in the 1950s Laura plants one on her surprised neighbor; in Manhattan, Clarissa Vaughn lives with her same-sex partner. In the first scene all three women awaken. Kidman's Woolf moves to put up her hair in 1923; Streep's Clarissa finishes the movement in 2001. Kidman announces she has a first line: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” In a California suburb Laura reads the line. Cut to Clarissa announcing to her partner that she will she buy flowers.
The Hours is about connection. But as well as the device works, it also serves to make every act bear the ponderous weight of meaning. There is a sense of trying too hard. Moore's segment is slaughtered by this. Screenwriter David Hare smartly lays off the voice-over, but Moore's character has no one she can confide in, and without the book's interior monologue, she's a cipher with a dreamy voice. The Hours is a movie to admire. Its power lingers in your head. But I'm not sure it's anything to adore.
One final note: Nearly all of the leading Oscar contenders, with only a few exceptions (Far From Heaven, The Quiet American), have opened or are set to open in Toledo. What's more, of potential nominees for Best Picture, two virtual shoo-ins are now playing: The Hours and Chicago, with a third due next week, Roman Polanski's The Pianist. My early money is on Chicago. But since it looks the part, I wouldn't be surprised if The Hours won.
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