I recently read Virginia Woolf’s beautiful, poignant and highly influential novel, Mrs. Dalloway, and needless to say I adored it. I am firmly in the school of fans of Postmodern literature, so to read an undeniably Modernist novel such as Mrs. Dalloway allows for one to see where the likes of David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo and the incredible Thomas Pynchon got their inspiration from. The next logical step was to look at The Hours (based on the book of the same name by Michael Cunningham, with a title taken from the working title of Mrs. Dalloway), and I most certainly loved it more than many people seem to normally do.
The Hours is set in three different time periods – 1923, 1951 and 2001, and is focused on three women – Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), all going about their day. The Hours is centered entirely around Mrs. Dalloway in so many ways – and while reading the novel is required, it allows for some fascinating references that create a wonderful sense of connection between this film and the novel that inspired it and the characters in the film. Mrs. Dalloway is central in the lives of these three women – Virginia is writing it, Laura is reading it and Clarissa is living it – to the point where she even shares the same name as Woolf’s heroine. This film is all set on a single day in different years, much like the novel – an experimental and wonderful method of telling this story, and as Woolf in this film states (about her novel), it is “A woman’s whole life in a single day. Just one day. And in that day her whole life”
There is something about Nicole Kidman that fascinates me. She is most certainly one of the most famous actresses of all time, and a living definition of a movie star – yet somehow she is also frequently able to create characters that are unlike anything she has done before. She commits to performances in a way that many of her contemporaries refuse to do, or rather don’t attempt to do for fear of shedding their image of glamour and star-quality. The role of Virginia Woolf is one that is complex but poignant – there is an inherent trickiness to getting the character right, creating a figure that inhabits a post-Edwardian society, and not only being a writer in a literary movement that isn’t particularly popular or revered at the time (I am referring to Modernism of course) – added to that, she isn’t only a writer, she is a woman writer, and even more than that, she is a repressed homosexual woman writer.
Virginia Woolf was a complicated and deeply troubled woman, and it needed a performance that would show both her radical genius and heartbreaking instability. Kidman delivers one of the finest performances of her career – she transforms herself, through means of the illusion of performance, into Woolf, a woman battling her own demons and who is doing her very best to stay afloat in a post-Edwardian society that is progressive to time, but regressive to figures like Woolf – she is both free and entrapped, which is an undeniable cause of her mental instability. Kidman is mesmerizing as Woolf, and if there wasn’t already an abundance of reasons for loving her, then this film is just another one.
I should be perfectly honest – there is very rarely a day that goes by that I don’t thank the universe that we are blessed to have Julianne Moore. To exist at the same time as her, to be alive in the same era that she is making movies, is a true blessing. It goes without saying that Julianne Moore is a tremendous talent, and someone who never fails to leave me speechless with her raw and unattainable talents. She has always been a tremendous actress, and while she has gained much respect in the last half-decade or so, going from dedicated character actress to revered leading lady, a film like The Hours gives us an extraordinary opportunity to see a different side of Moore. Her portrayal of a repressed housewife in the 1950s is truly magnificent – she isn’t abused by her husband, who is actually a wonderful husband to her, nor is she repressed by society – she inhabits a world that is starting to change. She is repressed by herself – her own ambitions that go undone, her own desires that are left unsatisfied. She doesn’t want to be a housewife, nor does she want to be a mother or a wife or any stereotype of the era. Yet don’t mistake this for a defiant but positive heroine – Laura is far from a good person. While she isn’t a villain, she is certainly not admirable. Moore is simply exquisite in the role – it may not be the most extravagant of the three performances, but it is certainly one that will stick with you long afterwards.
Of course, no Holy Trinity of great actresses can be complete without the living definition of “greatest actress” – Meryl Streep. I will be the first to admit that I have had my issues with Streep – she can play often derivative characters void of originality or interesting personalities. Many of her performances are oddly dull and meandering. Yet, as I always say, when Streep is in her element, she is beyond incredible. The Hours offers her the opportunity to give a truly memorable performance, in a role not very similar to her other work. Of course, The Hours is not a film that would have been challenging for Streep – Clarissa is a role she could’ve played in her sleep. Yet, she finds a rare humanity in a character that is otherwise unremarkable. Of the three main characters, Clarissa is the one we know the least about, yet she is also the one that personifies the central character in Mrs. Dalloway and thus is the embodiment of the themes of both the novel and the film. The parrallels between Clarissa and Mrs. Dalloway are startling, poignant and beautiful, and Streep is excellent. She does so much with a character that we don’t know much about – but that was the purpose.
The Hours boasts a talented supporting cast. Stephen Dillane, Allison Janney and John C. Reilly are wonderful as the three lovers of the central characters, and they all give dedicated and wonderful supportive performances that complement the incredible performances of the main characters, and while they may serve to be mere instruments to propel the characterization of the central protagonists, they do a brilliant job of developing themselves with the space they have been given. The person who runs away with this film is Ed Harris, who is simply exquisite as Richard, the dying poet that is friends with Clarissa. Mysterious, complex and heartbreaking, I haven’t been this moved by a performance in a long time. There is a twist in this film that is so beautiful in its brilliance, it left me gasping, and it is all due to Harris’ ability to be the master of subtlety, and his characterization is simply incredible and left me weeping quite openly. The entire cast of The Hours is utter perfection.
There are some common themes shared between the three narratives in The Hours – the first of which is the role of women in society. The Hours is a film preoccupied with showing women in a manner that is unconventional, not for cinema, but for the eras they exist in. Each one of the heroines in The Hours undergoes some form of gendered revolution and rebellion against the preconceived notions – and despite none of them ultimately ending up in a very happy position, they do manage to undergo their rebellion and defy the odds – this is a very pro-feminist film, mainly because of how it represents the way many women try and defy their place in time by being something different – and this is touched upon in all three of the narratives.
Primarily, The Hours is a film about love, specifically forbidden love, which is a theme that is shown countless times throughout this film. Virginia, Laura and Clarissa are all homosexual, and thus they are conflicted and deeply repressed characters. While Clarissa is very open about her sexuality, she still questions herself, such as her longing for her best friend Richard, perhaps the most daring narrative point in the entire film, and one that doesn’t get a clear resolution (for obvious reasons). This repressed homosexuality shown in Virginia and Laura is directly connected to their defiance – they have urges and desires, but cannot in good mind simply act on them – yet they do, in some small ways. This theme is treated so delicately, and creates even more complexity in these fascinating characters, as we are privvy to their carnal, deep desires, and we watch how they deal with these urges in times that aren’t particularly friendly, perhaps not only to their sexuality, but to their desires and actions as a whole.
The theme in The Hours that I think is most important is the one of mental instability and suicide, a common theme in all three narratives. Each of the narratives contain characters with mental issues, and we watch as they begin to unravel. The unravelling results in some truly hearbreaking moments, such as the film beginning and ending with Woolf’s suicide by drowning, and one of the most heartbreaking moments taking place when Richard throws himself out of his window so he doesn’t need to face “the hours” (which directly mirrors Septimus’ suicide in Mrs. Dalloway) – The Hours has been described as film about women, and about homosexuality – and while I recognize these as being major themes, the theme of suicide is the most important in my eyes – suicide plays a part in all the stories, and while for some it is a reality that needs to be done (such as in the case of Virginia and Richard), or simple thoughts that almost turn into actions (such as in the case of Laura) – overall, this is a film that makes bold statements about suicide, and rather than show it in the way that many other films do (implying that it requires some form of massive cowardice on the part of the individual who undertakes it), The Hours shows how these people are victims of society and of themselves – and while this film doesn’t glamorize suicide, it certainly doesn’t demonize it in the way it usually is.
Briefly, special kudos have to go to Philip Glass for his haunting, beautiful and memorable score, that remains with the audience until the final credits have ended and we are forced to come to terms with the emotional experience we just endured. The production design in The Hours was also magnificent – it takes a special kind of designer to be able to represent 1920s England, 1950s suburbia and 2000s New York City, but they were all represented so beautifully here, and with such detail and precision. The film as a whole is elevated to another level by the technical aspects that make it so special and memorable.
In conclusion, The Hours is a wonderful film. It will leave your heart broken and will move you with its emotional resonance. It is a film that creates sensations of thought that lay dormant most of the time. Through the intricate narrative structure, the beautiful performances from the entire cast and the dedication to representing the themes as beautifully as they were here made this a truly unforgettable film. I urge everyone to look into the life of Virginia Woolf – she was a true visionary, and The Hours is just a single portrait of her, but one that proves what an influential figure she was, but it also humanizes her and shows her flaws. The Hours is a truly wonderful experience and I can’t express how much I loved it enough. A truly beautiful film.