The Hours
review by Paula Nechak, 3 January 2003

"I don't mind about the dead...The worst of it is they cling to the living, and won't let go." So wrote D.H. Lawrence in his 1920 novel, "Women in Love."

The Hours, while dallying with that notion, pushes and nudges against it and in an elegaic, demanding cinematic dirge --  chooses to grasp at life. Though Stephen Daldry's film begins with a death -- Virginia Woolf's suicide in 1941 - and rapidly segues back to her germinating the seed for the novel Mrs. Dalloway in 1924 - it is about much, much more than the dead clinging to the living; more like the living clinging to the living and that passage of time called memory that can either sweep us up in an exalted, false happiness or allow us the liberation of living in the immediate moment. A woman's whole life in a single day, just one day, and in that day her whole life," Woolf put to paper in describing her creation Clarissa Dalloway, the heroine who, on the morning of her party decides to "buy the flowers herself."

In three separate stories over the course of that day and which, though they hinge on a foreboding of death and flow and converge like the river into which Woolf ultimately threw herself when she knew she would never again recover from recurring madness, introduces very different women who will either artistically, metaphorically or literally "buy the flowers themselves."

Certainly, The Hours is a film that will segregate its audience, if not along gender lines, then by those who cannot fathom internal life or the quiet presence of it. Yet it, as adapted from the perfectly observed words of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham and as written for the screen by the extraordinary insights of screenwriter and playwright David Hare, begs for patience and compassion.

Woolf (Nicole Kidman) suffers in the suburbs where she and her publisher husband Leonard (the wonderful Stephen Dillane) have sequestered themselves following another bout of Virginia's depression and descent into her heart of darkness. Virginia, chafing at being exiled from the bustle of the city craves London and --  in her fear of impending sickness --  begins writing Mrs. Dalloway (originally called The Hours as well) as a panacea to her aloneness.

In 1951, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), pregnant and mother of a young son, faces a spiritual death from her dull, routine life. It is her husband's birthday and Laura, who would rather be lying in bed reading Mrs. Dalloway, can barely cope with the demands of motherhood and its duties and the housewifely things she knows she should be doing to ensure her family's happiness.

Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is a present day publisher in New York city. Today she is throwing a party for Richard (Ed Harris), friend, ex-lover and poet dying of AIDS, who is about to receive a prestigious literary award for his body of work. Clarissa, affectionately called "Mrs. Dalloway" by Richard, lives with her longtime lover Sally (Allison Janney), who barely registers next to Richard's pervasive presence. Richard tells her she "is always giving parties to cover the silence," yet Clarissa refuses to see anything beyond Richard's fading world and refutes the idea that after he dies she will have to live her own life.

On this day, these women will collide, possibly to repeat history and tragedy - or - subvert it.

Daldry, who came to our attention with Billy Elliott and who - so deftly aided by editor Peter Boyle -- has taken on a monumental challenge in bringing an interiorized book to the screen. But he, Boyle and Hare have pulled it off --  at least structurally. The film certainly is not without flaws - Phillip Glass's droning and intrusive score is heavier than the stones that pulled Virginia to the bottom of the river Ouse and it screams where silence is demanded. It's the biggest upset to the delicate balance that The Hours juggles. As well, the contemporary story with Streep and Harris never takes us to that place of emotional despair in which Moore and Kidman reign. Its modern-day intellectual sensibility makes its strange agony more akin to stubbornness or an unwillingness to relinquish the past instead of - like the other women - trapped, externally and societally within it. Those "other" roles -- played by Kidman and Moore -- provide passionate, beautifully modulated opportunities that carry a frightening frailty at being cornered within one's own mind, life and expectations.

Some fuss has been made about gay subplots and a kiss that occurs between sisters and women friends but these, I think, happen less out of being gay (though Virginia had supposed affairs with Violet Dickenson and Vita Sackville-West) than the isolation of the women's existences, love and their longing to connect - we all reach out to those who are most like us in the unexpected minutes that tick and whittle at our time and to downplay the fact that these emotions exist is sheer ignorance. That Hare and Daldry and their actors get that impulse and manage to find the nuance to visualize and play it out by juxtaposing it against the creative and human urge to return to the place where we come from and from where we felt most alive and happy, is unique.

An exception must be made for Nicole Kidman though, as she, as the spine and propeller of the film, thrives as its heartbeat, despite her character's imminent suicide, "past death through the words, the work, the writing, everything that happens in a moment, the history of it and who we once were, the history of us." It's something The Hours reminds in its courage to face the minutes that slip away for each of us; that and its making an art film out of such commercial talent, who, apparently reveled in going back to that place where they began.

Directed by:
Stephen Daldry

Starring:
Nicole Kidman
Julianne Moore
Meryl Streep
Stephen Dillane
Miranda Richardson
Charley Ramm

Written by:
Michael Cunningham
David Hare

Rated:
PG - 13 - Parents
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.

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