The Hours Review
“A woman’s life…in one day.” That was Virginia Woolf’s starting point for her novel Mrs Dalloway, published in 1925 (and itself filmed by Marleen Gorris in 1998). The Hours was Woolf’s original title. This film, based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prizewinning novel, spins a three-stranded narrative from that original idea, as it follows a single day in the life of three women in separate places and times.
In 1923, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is recovering from a nervous breakdown and living with her husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) in Richmond. Despite the attentive, and often frustrated, help of Leonard and her sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson), Virginia is in the throes of depression and struggling to begin her next novel, which will become Mrs Dalloway.
Los Angeles, 1951. Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) – a frequent reader whose favourite novel is Mrs Dalloway – has everything: a loving husband, Dan (John C. Reilly), and son (Jack Rovello), with another child on the way. But something is missing from her life. On this day, she tries and fails to bake a cake for Dan’s birthday, then suddenly leaves her son behind and goes into town to be on her own…
Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a literary editor in 2001 New York, is a modern-day Mrs Dalloway, even taking her first name from her. She prepares a party for her close friend and former lover Richard (Ed Harris) who has full-blown AIDS. Richard has won a major poetry prize, but is reluctant to play along with her plans…
Aided by a first-rate script from David Hare, The Hours cuts between the three storylines. They’re almost musical in their construction: first short snippets introducing us to each, then longer, more developed scenes. Motifs and actions are repeated in each timeline. We end where we begin, with Woolf’s suicide by drowning in 1941. Each episode features a same-sex (though not always sexual) kiss at a vital point in the narrative. Food – certainly a typically “female” concern, often used as an expression of love or a substitute for it – is prepared but more often than not remains uneaten. We never lose touch of where and when we are, a tribute to Peter Boyle’s editing as well as to the distinct look given to each timeline by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and production designer Maria Djurkovic. 1923 is full of pastel shades and 1951 orange tones, while 2001 has a darker, grainier natural-light look. The storylines are linked in another way, towards the end, but that’s a plot twist I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.
With Streep, Moore and Kidman in the three lead roles, it goes without saying that the acting is terrific. Much has been made of Kidman’s prosthetic nose as Woolf, and it is true that the actress doesn’t look much like the writer. Yet it’s a more than respectable performance, as much conveyed by the eyes than anything else. Streep often seems most comfortable playing contemporary Americans (so that her formidable technique doesn’t become intrusive). But first among equals has to be Julianne Moore. Speaking in little more than a whisper, as if afraid to speak loudly would be to expose herself, this is her most self-effacing performance since her in-some-ways-similar one in Safe. And the supporting cast is beyond reproach too: in addition to the above, there are appearances from Toni Collette (almost unrecognisable as Laura’s best friend), Jeff Daniels (as Richard’s former lover – nice to see him again though he’s put on weight), Allison Janney (as Clarissa’s lover) and Claire Danes (Clarissa’s daughter). There’s a cameo from Eileen Atkins (who wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film) in a 2001 flower shop.
The Hours won’t be for everyone. It’s a very character-led film, with all the “action” involving the insides of people’s heads. The literary tone may be offputting to some, not least the (appropriate) higher-flown dialogue that Hare puts in the mouths of his 1923 and 2001 literary types. It’s a sad film, portraying circumscribed lives given to sorrow. But it’s not a depressing one: by the end hopeful notes are struck, with each woman learning from those who have gone before her. You’ll still have a lump in your throat by the end, though.
My reservations about The Hours are small ones: Philip Glass’s score is occasionally obtrusive. Quite rightly, the 2001 sequence doesn’t make an issue of its arty gay/bisexual milieu, though possibly it’s played a little too straight. Knowledge of Mrs Dalloway is not essential but will help your appreciation of the way Cunningham and Hare expand on its themes. But all in all this is a considerable achievement, and a great advance on Stephen Daldry’s previous film, the likeable but overrated Billy Elliot. It feels thought through and that time amd care has been taken on it. The Hours looks like one of the films of the year already.