The hour has come
Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” is a superlative piece of fiction, a novelist’s novel that became a surprise bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize. But, paradoxically, the very things that made it so impressive militated against any kind of successful studio film emerging out of its pages.
“The Hours” is exquisitely written, graced with a gift for elusive emotions and an effortless ability to delineate interior lives. And it has a complex, multilayered plot that intertwines the stories of three women in three different time periods, women linked by their despair and the difficulty they have in finding places for themselves in the world. This trio also share a relationship to yet another fictional woman, the title character of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” All in all, definitely not the kind of situation Hollywood is most at home with.
Yet, almost against reason, “The Hours” has turned out to be a splendid film.
It uses all the resources of cinema -- masterful writing, superb acting, directorial intelligence, an enveloping score, top-of-the-line production design, costumes, cinematography and editing -- to make a film whose cumulative emotional power takes viewers by surprise, capturing us unawares in its ability to move us as deeply as it does.
For perhaps the best thing about “The Hours” is the fearlessness of its emotionality. Stephen Daldry, a noted British theater director whose debut film was “Billy Elliot,” is not frightened of strong feelings but instead embraces them in a way that is often incompatible with the kind of intelligence and restraint that also characterizes “The Hours.”
But though the emotion sometimes overwhelmed “Billy Elliott,” it is well under control here, a situation that in part results from David Hare’s spare, eloquent script, which in turn benefited from his decision to write it without flashbacks and without voice-overs (with the sole exception of Woolf reading her own words.)
While the script departs from the novel in places, it is remarkably faithful to the original’s tone and spirit.
Daldry also works well with performers, in this case primarily actresses, and in “The Hours” he got to collaborate with three of the best. Nicole Kidman is galvanizing as Virginia Woolf, Meryl Streep is right behind her as a contemporary Manhattan version of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Julianne Moore is also strong as a 1951 Los Angeles housewife whose life is changed by Woolf’s book.
Daldry’s success in making “The Hours” an enlarging, fortifying experience is especially impressive because the themes involved are not automatically uplifting ones.
Even the title’s reference to the time we have before us is capable of being interpreted in opposing ways, as a span of hopeful possibility or an agony that must be endured.
Ultimately, though not everyone in the piece does so, “The Hours” is about choosing life over death, about why we persist in holding on to our existence despite the pain it is sure to cause us. It’s about those things we don’t say because they don’t fit into words, a film of lost feelings, strange unraveling moods and the importance of what lies beneath the surface.
“The Hours” is not afraid to admit how terrifyingly alone we can be, how deep the chasms between individuals are, how little we care to or are even able to let others into our emotional lives. Yet it shows not only how critical but also how fragile are the attachments we do form.
As Streep’s contemporary character says about a particularly intense moment, “I remember thinking, ‘This is the beginning of happiness.’ That’s what I thought. ‘So this is the feeling. This is where it starts. And of course there’ll always be more.’ It never occurred to me: It wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then.”
It is, finally, the joy we take in these brutally brief connections, the push-pull between how fleeting yet how indelible these small moments are, that is life’s hard-won balm, that is what we treasure even as we learn how evanescent any kind of pleasure can be. As Woolf says of her characters in the midst of creating “Mrs. Dalloway,” “Someone has to die so the rest of us can value life more.”
It is Woolf we are introduced to first, in a brief prologue set in 1941, the year of her suicide.
After that “The Hours” alternates among three worlds, each finely re-created by production designer Maria Djurkovic. There is Woolf in 1923, simultaneously recovering from a mental collapse and in the throes of writing “Mrs. Dalloway.” There is 1951’s Laura Brown, at sea to the point of drowning in marriage and motherhood. Finally, there is 2001’s Clarissa Vaughn, intent on giving a celebration dinner for her best friend, who has just won a major poetry prize but is dying of AIDS.
While Cunningham’s book emphasized the interconnectedness of these lives by alternating chapters about each of them, “The Hours” goes it one better, especially in its early stages, by confidently and intimately intercutting the stories by means of parallel gestures and words.
So, in a tightly cut sequence (Peter Boyle is the editor) about the three women awaking, both Kidman’s Woolf and Streep’s Vaughn make the identical gesture in putting up their hair. When Woolf bends forward to splash water on her face, the next image shows Vaughn pulling her face out of a basin. When we see Woolf writing “Mrs. Dalloway’s” first line, that’s followed by Laura Brown reading it and Vaughn saying the modern version, “I think I’ll buy the flowers myself.”
As the film progresses, more thematic elements, on the order of passionate kisses, are repeated as well. This may sound gimmicky, but it is just the opposite, an exhilarating reveling in film’s power to seduce the mind into making the kinds of connections, instantaneous as well as meaningful, even novels can’t always manage.
With its own emphasis on repetition, Philip Glass’ lush score enhances these connections, heightening the film’s emotional quotient and giving the story added grandeur, melancholy and uneasiness.
As Cunningham himself wrote in liner notes to the score, “We are creatures who repeat ourselves, we humans, and if we refuse to embrace repetition -- if we balk at art that seeks to praise its textures and rhythms, its endlessly subtle variations -- we ignore much of what is meant by life itself.”
Though Woolf is not the most electrifying character in Cunningham’s book, she is that on screen, with full credit going to Kidman’s piercing performance, a powerful piece of acting that is unsettling in the best sense.
Unrecognizable in a false nose and Ann Roth’s excellent costumes, Kidman has gotten a death grip on this character. Completely inhabiting the role, she allows us to feel, especially in scenes with her sister Vanessa (the always reliable Miranda Richardson), how agonizing it is for her to be banned from the excitements of London on doctor’s orders.
We also see the controlled turmoil of creativity, understanding intuitively what a key moment it is when Woolf says to husband Leonard (an immaculate Stephen Dillane), “I believe I may have a first sentence.” These two share the film’s strongest scene, a train platform argument about returning to London that ends with Virginia’s poignant belief that “you do not find peace by avoiding life.”
Though the nature of her character mandates that her performance will not be as showy, Streep is subtle and devastating as Clarissa Vaughn, a contemporary New Yorker nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway and, like her namesake, a confident hostess who can bring irresistible enthusiasm to phrases like “Let’s just have buckets of roses.”
Also like the original Mrs. Dalloway, Vaughn is shown on a single day, preparing for a party, but a day fraught with personal baggage. The guest of honor, poet Richard (Ed Harris, at times trying too hard) is not only a friend ravaged by disease but a former lover before both of them found same-sex partners (Allison Janey plays hers; Jeff Daniels an old beau of his). Playing a caregiver intent on holding things together, making the conveying of complex emotions seem like second nature, Streep (who appears as herself in “The Hours”) gives a beautifully modulated performance whose seeming artlessness makss a wealth of skill.
Coming between these two chronologically, the 1951 Los Angeles section starring Moore as a desperate housewife is, though handsomely mounted, the most problematic part of the film.
In part this is because the tone Daldry has chosen for the segment is less natural and more stylized than the others (witness John C. Riley’s obsequious, artificial turn as husband Dan Brown). It’s also because Mrs. Brown, alone of the three women, lacks someone she can have an honest conversation with and so, without the book’s interior monologues to fall back on, her intentions and thought patterns are inevitably more opaque than those of her co-protagonists. But even with its flaws, this section still functions as it should as a key component of the piece’s intricate dance of relationships.
Though “The Hours” makes expert use of both the contemporary novel and “Mrs. Dalloway,” you don’t need to know anything about either to enjoy this films’ lushly photographed (by Seamus McGarvey) riches. All you need is an openness to emotion and a mature empathy for the vicissitudes of human need. A Woolf voice-over that serves as the film’s peroration puts it best: “To look life in the face, always to look life in the face, and to know what it is, to love it for what it is. At last to know it. To love it for what it is. And then to put it away.”
MPAA rating: PG-13, for mature thematic elements, some disturbing images and brief language.
Times guidelines: Suicides, same-sex kissing, adult subject matter.
Meryl Streep...Clarissa Vaughn
Julianne Moore...Laura Brown
Nicole Kidman...Virginia Woolf
Claire Danes...Julia Vaughan
Jeff Daniels ...Louis Waters
Stephen Dillane...Leonard Woolf
Allison Janney...Sally Lester
John C. Reilly...Dan Brown
Miranda Richardson...Vanessa Bell
Paramount Pictures and Miramax Films present a Scott Rudin/Robert Fox production, released by Paramount Pictures. Director Stephen Daldry. Producers Scott Rudin, Robert Fox. Executive producer Mark Huffam. Screenplay David Hare, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. Editor Peter Boyle. Costumes Ann Roth. Music Philip Glass. Production design Maria Djurkovic. Art director Nick Palmer. Set decorator Phillipa Hart. Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
In limited release.