Every once in a while, there is a movie that is not just an escape from life, but an insight into it. At first glance, “The Hours,” a screen version of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, isn’t one of them.
Its three major characters, women of different eras whose lives on one day are interwoven in this film, seem too distant from us. There is Virginia Woolf, struggling against bouts of black depression to begin her great novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” also the story of one day in a woman’s life. There is Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife suffering a kind of soul death in a California suburb where even her reading of “Mrs. Dalloway” -- or any book -- is remarked upon. And there is Clarissa Vaughan, a professional woman living in present-day Manhattan with her college-age daughter, her woman lover and her care-taking duties for a former lover, now dying of AIDS, for whom she is planning a Mrs. Dalloway-style dinner party.
But as these lives unfold in the darkened theater, any feeling of distance melts away. For one thing, the interior life of each woman is revealed with such reality that we become as hooked on its suspense as we would in any action film, a rare success in this visual medium. For another, we witness moments of such concentrated meaning that, if you poured water on them, each one would become a novel.
For example: When Virginia Woolf, played with subtlety by Nicole Kidman, says, “I believe I may have a first sentence,” we glimpse the internal struggle of a writer. When Julianne Moore, as Laura, the 1950s housewife, speaks to her beloved little boy in an inauthentic “Mommy” voice, we understand the price paid by everyone when women are allowed to give birth to others but not themselves. And when Meryl Streep, as the modern Clarissa, tells her daughter that she once thought of a moment of happiness as the beginning of a happy life -- only to realize later that this moment was happiness itself -- we get a rare lesson in the importance of living in the present, which is, of course, the only time we can live.
But the power of “The Hours” only really becomes clear as we find ourselves thinking about it, seeking out friends who have seen it, and eliciting lessons from it for days and weeks afterward. Because this film assumes that one day can be the microcosm of a life -- and that inner space is as dramatic and worthy of exploring as outer space -- we’re moved to value our own days and lives. After all, our bodies are one-third solid and two-thirds water, mirroring the Earth itself, and our brains are said to be as complex as the universe. Why shouldn’t one day be a microcosm of a larger life, even the sweep of history? It’s a populist point better made through the days of three “ordinary” women than through the lives of leaders whose days would seem already important. It’s also the understanding of Virginia Woolf that caused Michael Cunningham and so many others to fall in love with her work.
Even as a sports-obsessed 15-year-old boy, Cunningham remembers discovering her, as he wrote on “The Hours’ ” Web site, “a genius and a visionary ... a rock star ... the first writer to split the atom.” Now, he explains, “her greatness lies in her insistence that there are no ordinary lives, just inadequate ways of looking at them.... If most great writers scan the heavens like astrophysicists, Woolf looked penetratingly at the very small, like a microbiologist.... We understand that the workings of atomic particles are every bit as mysterious and enormous as the workings of galaxies -- it all depends on whether you look in or out.”
Worries about omissions
Thanks to David Hare’s imaginative script, which makes three lives resonate with shared themes and images, and to Stephen Daldry’s transparent direction, “The Hours” also conveys this sense that inner space is as vast, dramatic and surprising as outer space. Of course, the impulse to keep thinking about this movie owes something to worry about what it leaves out. For example, I worry that viewers, especially those who can’t empathize with the self-erasure that goes along with living a derived life, may demonize Laura for leaving her family to save her life. Some male moviegoers have emerged bewildered about why Laura wasn’t happy with just her nice house, nice marriage and nice son -- as if they would’ve been.
Even more, I worry that the absence of even a hint of the sexual abuse and isolation that left Woolf with childhood flashbacks and a lifetime of trauma -- beyond what society was willing to talk about then, but inexplicably left out of Cunningham’s novel and this film -- may make her depressions seem a personal fault. For example, there is a reference to the suicide of one of her “Mrs. Dalloway” characters, yet not to the fact that he was a traumatized veteran of World War I to whom Woolf herself would have felt personally linked.
Because the film’s prologue shows Woolf’s own suicide 18 years later -- yet gives us no clue that the march of fascism and the beginning of World War II were part of what pushed her over the edge -- I worry that her radical act of self-determination is deprived of its context then, and its resonance now. If the response of the New York Times’ reviewer is any measure, I’m right to worry. Though he praised the film, he attributed Woolf’s suffering to the “faulty wiring” of her brain.
But high expectations are the price of high standards, and this film sets them. The valuable and rare thing is that individual days and lives and inner worlds -- those of others and also our own -- may seem more complicated, miraculous and valuable after we’ve seen “The Hours” than before. That’s not a bad lesson in this time when destroying lives far away is being presented to us as acceptable, and even desirable. Without the added burdens that Woolf carried for all her days, we should be able to do something about it.
If we do, “The Hours” will have extended the life of the woman who inspired it.
Gloria Steinem is an author, feminist activist and consulting editor of Ms. magazine.