The Hours

The Hours is a clever movie based on a clever Pullitzer Prize winning novel (by Michael Cunningham) based on a clever story that interweaves and draws parallels between fact and fiction across three different time zones to the point where they are as one, dramatised by a clever playwright (David Hare), honed by a clever director (Stephen Daldry) and played by a cast that is multi-talented and certainly never less than, well, clever.

It certainly helps if you know something of the history of Virginia Woolf and her work, particularly Mrs Dalloway, though the movie fills you in with the background on Woolf, played here to splendid effect and with prosthetic nose by Nicole Kidman.  This is a 1923 Woolf, plagued with bipolar self-doubt and engulfed in suicidal thoughts, eventually enacted by her leading protagonist, though Woolf’s own suicide by drowning, with which the movie starts, was held at bay until 1941, despite several attempts and frequent battles with her sanity.

She argues with husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) that Richmond would drive her closer to suicide and that she wants to return to London, to which he reluctantly agrees.  Her argument is that only she understands what is in her best interests, mirroring the conversation held with her sister Vanessa Bell, played with delicacy of touch by the wonderful Miranda Richardson.

In this time zone we learn more about how Mrs Dalloway came to be written, though the story weaves the fictional events of 1951 and 2001 in multiple and artfully knowing retellings of Mrs D through characters played by Julianne Moore (who reads the books and contemplates suicide) and Meryl Streep (whose character is Clarissa Vaughan, known playfully to her friend Richard – aka Ed Harris – as “Mrs Dalloway.”)

As with all great novels, the ironic and dramatic linkage is unravelled in the final chapter, though Daldry’s camera darts back and forth to compare and contrast these three women with gay abandon against the backdrop of a rumbustiously romanticised score by Philip Glass.  Several motifs recur, notably the hint of lesbianism with women kissing other women unexpectedly but with passion.  All three women, we are led to believe, cannot escape the haunting influence of Mrs Dalloway, with one twist.

It would be so easy to make a total hash of this scenario, as indeed have novelists and movie directors before, so it’s a pleasure to report that the literary nature of The Hours is not abused in the retelling, and its quality at all stages is a hallmark of success: in short, it works brilliantly.  Granted this would not be the movie for every viewer, though even those not interested in literary heritage could appreciate the drama at face value, always a relevant factor to consider when making this kind of movie.

The performances are sensitive (perhaps overly sensitive on the part of Ms Streep) and well attuned to the nature of the work – and supported by great performances at every level (by John C Reilly, Toni Collette and others.)  I’m especially impressed by the subtlety and depth of Harris’s performance, one imbued with a sense of history but in which he looks as fragile as you would expect of any character with neo-terminal AIDS, reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Philadelphia.  There is a knowingness to all performances, that they must play by the rules applicable to any tragedy.  No Deus ex Machina,  other perhaps than the belated arrival of Richard’s mother, but it is as if the characters are aware that they are playing out the tragedy of Mrs Dalloway and find it quite beyond their capacity to prevent that tragic outcome.

The critics recognised these qualities, suggesting even that Daldry goes further than Cunningham in the novel – a rare beast indeed for the movie to exceed its source material.  From Wikipedia:

The Hours has in 2010 81% positive reviews on the movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, with 150 of 186 counted reviews giving it a “fresh” rating and an average rating of 7.4 out of 10 — with the consensus that “the movie may be a downer, but it packs an emotional wallop. Some fine acting on display here.” On Metacritic, the film holds an average score of 81 out of 100, based on 39 reviews. The four main cast members were praised, especially Nicole Kidman who won numerous of awards for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf including the Academy Award for Best Actress.

Stephen Holden of The New York Times called the film “deeply moving” and “an amazingly faithful screen adaptation” and added, “Although suicide eventually tempts three of the film’s characters, The Hours is not an unduly morbid film. Clear eyed and austerely balanced would be a more accurate description, along with magnificently written and acted. Mr. Glass’s surging minimalist score, with its air of cosmic abstraction, serves as ideal connective tissue for a film that breaks down temporal barriers.”[3]

Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle observed, “Director Stephen Daldry employs the wonderful things cinema can do in order to realize aspects of The Hours that Cunningham could only hint at or approximate on the page. The result is something rare, especially considering how fine the novel is, a film that’s fuller and deeper than the book … It’s marvelous to watch the ways in which [David Hare] consistently dramatizes the original material without compromising its integrity or distorting its intent … Cunningham’s [novel] touched on notes of longing, middle-aged angst and the sense of being a small consciousness in the midst of a grand mystery. But Daldry and Hare’s [film] sounds those notes and sends audiences out reverberating with them, exalted.”

Richard Schickel of Time criticized its simplistic characterization, saying, “Watching The Hours, one finds oneself focusing excessively on the unfortunate prosthetic nose Kidman affects in order to look more like the novelist. And wondering why the screenwriter, David Hare, and the director, Stephen Daldry, turn Woolf, a woman of incisive mind, into a hapless ditherer.” He also criticized its overt politicization: “But this movie is in love with female victimization. Moore’s Laura is trapped in the suburban flatlands of the ’50s, while Streep’s Clarissa is moored in a hopeless love for Laura’s homosexual son (Ed Harris, in a truly ugly performance), an AIDS sufferer whose relentless anger is directly traceable to Mom’s long-ago desertion of him. Somehow, despite the complexity of the film’s structure, this all seems too simple-minded. Or should we perhaps say agenda driven? The same criticisms might apply to the fact that both these fictional characters (and, it is hinted, Woolf herself) find what consolation they can in a rather dispassionate lesbianism. This ultimately proves insufficient to lend meaning to their lives or profundity to a grim and uninvolved film, for which Philip Glass unwittingly provides the perfect score — tuneless, oppressive, droning, painfully self-important.”

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone awarded the film, which he thought “sometimes stumbles on literary pretensions,” three out of four stars. He praised the performances, commenting, “Kidman’s acting is superlative, full of passion and feeling … Moore is wrenching in her scenes with Laura’s son (Jack Rovello, an exceptional child actor). And Streep is a miracle worker, building a character in the space between words and worlds. These three unimprovable actresses make The Hours a thing of beauty.”

Steve Persall of the St. Petersburg Times said it “is the most finely crafted film of the past year that I never want to sit through again. The performances are flawless, the screenplay is intelligently crafted, and the overall mood is relentlessly bleak. It is a film to be admired, not embraced, and certainly not to be enjoyed for any reason other than its expertise … Glacially paced and somberly presented, The Hours demands that viewers be as impressed with the production as the filmmakers are with themselves … Whatever the reason – too gloomy, too slow, too slanted – [it] is too highbrow and admirably dull for most moviegoers. It’s the kind of film that makes critics feel smarter by recommending it, even at the risk of damaging credibility with mainstream audiences who automatically think any movie starring Kidman, Streep and Moore is worth viewing. The Hours will feel like days for them.”

Phillip French of The Observer called it “a moving, somewhat depressing film that demands and rewards attention.” He thought “the performances are remarkable” but found the Philip Glass score to be “relentless” and “over-amplified.”

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian rated the film three out of five stars and commented, “It is a daring act of extrapolation, and a real departure from most movie-making, which can handle only one universe at a time . . . The performances that Daldry elicits . . . are all strong: tightly managed, smoothly and dashingly juxtaposed under a plangent score. I have to confess I am agnostic about Nicole Kidman, who as Woolf murmurs her lines through an absurd prosthetic nose. It’s almost a Hollywood Disability. You’ve heard of Daniel Day-Lewis and My Left Foot. This is Nicole and her Big Fake Schnoz. It doesn’t look anything like the real Virginia’s sharp, fastidious features . . . Julianne Moore gives [a] superbly controlled, humane performance . . . Streep’s performance is probably the most fully realised of the three: a return to the kind of mature and demanding role on which she had a freehold in yesterday’s Hollywood . . . Part of the bracing experimental impact of the film was the absence of narrative connection between the three women. Supplying one in the final reel undermines its formal daring, but certainly packs an emotional punch. It makes for an elegant and poignant chamber music of the soul.”

Waspish critiques notwithstanding, I loved The Hours and think any intelligent viewer will do the same.  Enjoy!

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