The Hours

The Hours
Director: Stephen Daldry
Screenplay: David Hare (based on the novel by Michael Cunningham)
Stars: Meryl Streep (Clarissa Vaughan), Nicole Kidman (Virginia Woolf), Julianne Moore (Laura Brown), Ed Harris (Richard Brown), Stephen Dillane (Leonard Woolf), Miranda Richardson (Vanessa Bell), John C. Reilly (Dan Brown), Jack Rovello (Richie Brown), Toni Collette (Kitty), Margo Martindale (Mrs. Latch), Allison Janney (Sally Lester), Claire Danes (Julia Vaughan), Jeff Daniels (Louis Waters)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2002
Country: USA
The Hours

Starring a trio of well-respected actresses and based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours is pure Oscar-bait; it wears its hearty ambitions on its sleeve, but never convinces that it’s about anything much beyond its own morbidity. There are two suicides, one suicide attempt, several emotional breakdowns, a couple of sexually confused kisses, plenty of familial tensions—basically, all the stuff of heady drama rolled into one lavish production and punched home with an emotionally charged musical score by Phillip Glass. What else could Oscar want? One would hope a better, more subtle film that truly explores complex emotional issues, rather than parading them.

The idea behind Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel was taking the conceit of Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Mrs. Dalloway, which summed up the life of its titular character in a single day, and spread it across three generations of women, starting with Ms. Woolf herself. The connecting tissue among these three women, each living out one day in her life, is sorrow and suffering. Many have pointed to the theme of repression, which is certainly there, but it doesn’t function with the same strength in each of the three stories. The final story, which takes place in New York City in 2001, features characters who have broken free of the social and sexual repressions faced by the other two characters, but are still miserable and heartbroken.

The Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) section of the triad takes place in the English countryside in 1923, where she and her husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) have retreated to solace and quiet so that she may write and cope with her mental illness. She is visited by her sister, Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson), and her children, who remind Virginia of her solitude in the country and her longing for London, the place that brings out her insanity, but also allows her to live. This is also the day that she begins writing the first pages of Mrs. Dalloway, the novel that serves as The Hours’ thematic guide.

Two decades later, in 1951, pregnant housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) kisses her cheerful, war-veteran husband (John C. Reilly) goodbye and spends the rest of the day in a state of morbid, suicidal detachment. The exact nature of her depressed state is never made entirely clear, although a too-friendly kiss with her baby-doll next-door neighbor, Kitty (Toni Collette), suggests that she is repressing lesbian desires and subsuming them into her rote jobs of picture-perfect mother and homemaker.

Fast-forward another 50 years, and we find Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), a modern-day Mrs. Dalloway who, as one character puts it, is always giving parties in order to cover the silence. On this particular day, Clarissa is planning a large party for Richard Brown (Ed Harris), a gay poet who has received a coveted award, but is wasting away physically and mentally from AIDS. Clarissa is a successful book editor with a chic downtown apartment, a 10-year relationship with another woman (Allison Janney), and a college-age daughter (Claire Danes), yet she is no happier than Virginia Woolf or Laura Brown. Like them, she is somehow trapped, although exactly by what is never made clear.

The three stories are interwoven in various ways to emphasize the spiritual interconnections among the three women. Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) and his editor Peter Boyle (Quills) use various match cuts (both visual and aural) to suggest that, rather than being three women, Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa are, in effect, three faces of the same woman. Yet, instead of making a clear statement regarding the particular social, cultural, or personal restrictions on the free expression and subsequent happiness of independent women, the film simply leaves us with a trio of miserable people and their seemingly empty lives.

Having not read the source novel, I cannot comment on its success in using this triad of lives over a multidecade period to explore the inner workings of strong women trapped in some form of isolation, but it doesn’t work particularly well in the film version. The obvious intent here was to replicate Woolf’s masterful emotional evocations and stream of consciousness writing, but the cinema, except in its most avant-garde formulations, has never been a particularly great medium for conveying thoughts and feelings except as they are externalized in action. There is plenty of such action in The Hours—the aforementioned suicides and breakdowns are evidence. Yet, all these do is underscore the characters’ general unhappiness without ever truly enlightening us as to the causes and reasons. And, watching almost two hours of endless unhappiness without any true insight is not a particularly pleasant experience.

One cannot fault the three lead actresses, though, as each turns in the best possible performance given the material. Meryl Streep evokes the trauma of a successful woman who doesn’t feel successful because she can’t have everything. Life is too messy for someone like Clarissa to ever be at peace. For her role as Laura Brown, Julianne Moore plays the ’50s housewife in stark contrast to her performance as a surface-similar character in Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven. Her Laura is deeply turned inward, barely able to react and express herself, almost as if she is sleepwalking through life. She is the very picture of misery, and it is her scenes that are the most troubling and disturbing.

As Virginia Woolf, Nicole Kidman gets the showiest performance, complete with a prosthetic proboscis that makes her virtually unrecognizable. She embodies Woolf’s rebellious and tortured spirit; you can understand immediately why she hates being trapped in the country “for her own good.” Her performance is brilliant in embodying everything that we expect of a Virginia Woolf performance, particularly how she holds a cigarette in a way that is both clutching and nonchalant and the way in which she stares off into some other space, either deep in thought or completely overrun by her inner demons.

Yet, we never really get a sense of Woolf’s sizable intellect and spirit, which is more the fault of the script than Kidman’s performance. Rather, Woolf is depicted largely in terms of her depression. Like the other two characters, Woolf is defined almost exclusively by her emotional problems, which isn’t surprising given that the film as a whole defines individualism by its neuroses. The Hours is emotionally wrenching, but for no other purpose than to wrench, and that is its greatest failure.

The Hours Special Collector’s Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
LanguagesEnglish, French
Subtitles English
DistributorParamount Home Video
Release DateJune 24, 2003

1.85:1 (Anamorphic)
The Hours is presented in an absolutely beautiful anamorphic widescreen transfer that really showcases Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography. From the cool, gray interiors of a hospital, to the lush greenery of Richmond, to the modernist décor of the 1950s suburbs, this transfer handles all the film’s imagery with good detail and rich, well-saturated colors. The film is also available in a separately released “full-frame” edition.

English Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround
English Dolby 2.0 Surround

French Dolby 2.0 Surround
The Dolby Digital 5.0 surround soundtrack lacks a dedicated low-frequency channel, but The Hours is not a film that would take advantage of it, anyway. Philip Glass’s piano-heavy score sounds rich and full, and the dialogue is always clear and understandable, if a bit center-heavy. Overall, the sound mix is not particularly dynamic, but it works well enough with the material.

Two audio commentaries
This disc boasts two audio commentaries. The first features director Stephen Daldry and novelist Michael Cunningham. For those intrigued by the film’s multiple layers of meaning and historical background, this is a solid commentary with a great deal to offer. The second commentary features the film’s triumvirate of award-winning actresses: Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore. Unfortunately, the three were recorded separately and then edited together, and the commentary often features significant moments of dead space. Yet, listening to these three fascinating women discuss their craft and how they related to the film makes it worth listening to.

Filmmaker’s Introduction
This is really little more than two minutes of an interview with director Stephen Daldry, who discusses his take on the film. Presented in 1.33:1.

“Three Women” featurette
In this 16-minute featurette, director Stephen Daldry and stars Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore explore the individual characters in the film (with, not surprisingly, quite a bit dedicated to Kidman’s false nose). There is quite a bit of behind-the-scenes footage, as well. Presented in 1.33:1.

“The Mind and Times of Virginia Woolf” featurette
Certainly the most intriguing and useful supplement on the disc, this 25-minute featurette uses interviews with scholars, critics, and family members to explore the life and times of Virginia Woolf. It explores numerous aspects of her life, including her art, her sexuality, her political beliefs, and her mental problems. Presented in 1.33:1.

“The Music of The Hours” featurette
This seven-minute featurette includes interviews with director Stephen Daldry, screenwriter David Hare, and composer Philip Glass, who all discuss how music plays a role in binding the film’s multiple stories together. Presented in 1.33:1.

“The Lives of Mrs. Dalloway” featurette
This 10-minute featurette focuses on Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway and particularly how it inspired novelist Michael Cunningham to write The Hours. Presented in 1.33:1.

Original theatrical trailer
Presented in nonamorphic widescreen (1.85:1).

© 2003 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (2)

James Kendrick

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