THE TIME TO HIDE IS OVER. THE TIME TO REGRET IS GONE. THE TIME TO LIVE IS NOW.
When author Michael Cunningham finished work on his novel “The Hours”, I hope he gave himself a pat on the shoulder. His original intention was to make a contemporary update of Virginia Woolf’s classic “Mrs. Dalloway”, but he soon realized that there was a clever way to give his work more layers. Not only became “The Hours” a portrayal of a day in the life of a middle-aged editor in New York who resembles the title character, it also became a day in the life of a housewife in 1940s California who’s reading “Mrs. Dalloway”, as well as a day in the life of its author, Virginia Woolf. One day, three women, three crises. And it’s all a strangely uplifting experience.
Throwing a party for an ex-lover
Having read “Mrs. Dalloway” before reading “The Hours” or watching this film doesn’t hurt, but I can tell you from personal experience that it isn’t necessary. The film follows Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), the gay editor previously mentioned, as she is preparing to throw a party for her ex-lover (Ed Harris) who is dying of AIDS; Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), the housewife, as she spends a day on the run before celebrating her husband’s birthday that same evening; and Virginia Woolf as she is trying to recuperate from her mental illness by staying in the English countryside to write that famous novel. All these women should be reasonably happy – Laura and Virginia are married to kind, considerate men, Clarissa and Virginia are fortunate enough to be in a line of work they love, Laura and Clarissa are parents to wonderful children. But they’re not happy, they feel helpless and trapped, and the degree of despair on display here is the most fascinating thing about this movie.
It all rings true; what if you’re living a life everyone would say is profoundly rich and you still can’t find satisfaction? What if your child means very little to you? Your marriage? Your work? Your friends? What if your only desire is to run away from it all? There is a sadness in this film that I think speaks to a lot of people, not only those who instantly know what these characters are going through.
A general sense of alienation
Homosexuality matters on more than one level. Some people believe this is the major theme of the novel and the film. It is admittedly a vital part of it that connects with the overriding theme, the general sense of alienation. The filmmakers are trying to make viewers understand what might be an occasional, or constant, feeling of being on the outside, not being able to take part in something that everyone else seems to be doing.
But the story is also clearly optimistic in spite of the darkness; there are choices and there is always a tomorrow, no matter how trite those words of wisdom may sound. British director Stephen Daldry showed that it is possible to stay true to the literary original and still create a film that truly can stand on its own; he has great help from screenwriter David Hare who knows how to spot the cinematic aspects of Cunningham’s work. The filmmakers portray the three settings in a meticulous way, but still manage to make the parts fuse seamlessly.
The three female stars are surrounded by a very impressive supporting cast, but they do nevertheless deliver the strongest performances in the film: Julianne Moore who gives the impression of being a prisoner in that perfect suburban life, Meryl Streep who actually seems to be improving with each year, and Nicole Kidman and her prosthetic nose who are both working so hard at doing Woolf justice.
I know that Cunningham is very pleased with this film and he should be. He’s hoping for it to change someone’s life… and it just might.
The Hours 2002-U.S. 114 min. Color. Produced by Robert Fox, Scott Rudin. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Screenplay: David Hare. Novel: Michael Cunningham. Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey. Editing: Peter Boyle. Music: Philip Glass. Cast: Meryl Streep (Clarissa Vaughan), Nicole Kidman (Virginia Woolf), Julianne Moore (Laura Brown), Ed Harris, Toni Collette, Claire Danes… Allison Janney, Jeff Daniels, John C. Reilly, Miranda Richardson.
Trivia: Eileen Atkins, who has a small part, adapted “Mrs. Dalloway” for the screen in 1998.
Oscar: Best Actress (Kidman). BAFTA: Best Actress, (Kidman), Film Music. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Actress (Kidman). Berlin: Best Actress (Kidman, Streep, Moore).
Quote: “This is my right; it is the right of every human being. I choose not the suffocating anesthetic of the suburbs, but the violent jolt of the Capital, that is my choice. The meanest patient, yes, even the very lowest is allowed some say in the matter of her own prescription. Thereby she defines her humanity. I wish, for your sake, Leonard, I could be happy in this quietness. But if it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death.” (Kidman arguing with Stephen Dillane about where to recover after a suicide attempt)
Last word: “The difficulty was that we knew that the actresses would never meet because of their availability and because we were shooting wildly out of sequence. It was very much like mathematics – we had to be very careful about the architecture of the film before we started shooting it in terms of its cutting pattern. This was not a film created in the editing room, though a lot of decisions were made there, it was very much to do with the screenplay stage. We spent a lot of time testing and prepping everything so that when we came to shoot it we knew what we were doing.” (Daldry, The Guardian)