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This ensemble drama tells three stories simultaneously of women in different times, all drawn upon the writings and life of author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman).
First, there's the author herself in 1923, struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide, while writing Mrs Dalloway. Second is Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a pregnant Los Angeles housewife in 1949 planning a birthday party for her husband who finds that she can't stop reading Mrs Dalloway. Third is Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), a modern New York woman throwing a party for her friend and former lover, acclaimed author Richard (Ed Harris), dying of AIDS (who gave her the nickname of Mrs Dalloway).
Persons of interest
- Julianne Moore .... Laura Brown
- Meryl Streep .... Clarissa Vaughn
- Ed Harris .... Richard
- Nicole Kidman .... Virginia Woolf
- Allison Janney .... Sally
- Claire Danes .... Julia
- Toni Collette .... Kitty
- Eileen Atkins .... Barbara
- Michael Cunningham .... Author
- David Hare .... Screenwriter
- Stephen Daldry .... Director
Cinematic intelligence sources
- Awards and film festivals:
- Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS - Oscars) 2003: Best Actress in a Leading Role (Nicole Kidman)
- Hollywood Foreign Press Association (Golden Globes) 2002: Best drama, best actor in a drama (Nicole Kidman)
- The hours official movie site
- The hours movie trailers:
- Studios and distributors:
Agent Provocateur Alexander Feld
Existing in three eras at once, literary past the border into highbrow, devoid of the slightest chuckle, femme-centric to the point of chick flick, packed with metaphor and allusion, maudlin and morose, Stephen Daldry's The hours is not for everyone. It is one of the most challenging films of the year.
The prologue sets the Bergmanesque tone: on a grey afternoon in 1941 the celebrated English novelist Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), suffering her fourth nervous breakdown, weighs her pockets with stones and slips quietly into the River Ouse. Sixteen years before, in the recessional of another breakdown, she conceptualises Mrs Dalloway, her first masterpiece, on a single summer afternoon: in the course of one day, during which she must plan and host a party, Clarissa Dalloway questions her reason for being, and someone else will die.
In a sun-drenched suburban Los Angeles tract house, a decade after Woolf's suicide, a pregnant Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) tries to motivate herself and her clinging young son to bake a birthday cake for her husband, but she cannot keep her head out of Mrs Dalloway. Toni Collette provides a sensational cameo as Kitty, Cathy's neighbour. Poised, gorgeous, guarded and seemingly made of glass, she confesses to the morose Cathy that she may have cancer. Their lingering parting kiss is far from friendly. The double encounter with mortality provides the fuel in sending Cathy over the edge.
In present-day New York, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is a successful editor, living in compromised lesbian domesticity with Sally (Allison Janney), and planning a fete to honour her intimate friend and former lover Richard, a celebrated poet now in the final throes of AIDS. Three women, three related scenarios, one monumental day.
The hours, an adaptation of Michael Cunnigham's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, (The hours, two words used with mimetic power by Woolf, was her working title for the novel), is a vindication of Woolf's vision - all humanity is linked. As Woolf's Clarissa Dalloway contemplates the life she never had, Septimus Warren Smith, whom she never meets but with whom she shares identical feelings, suicides. A central idea propelled in Mrs Dalloway, and embodied in its Joycean/Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness language, is that people who never meet, such as Mrs Dalloway and Mr Smith, the characters in this film, and for that matter all humans, are inimitably connected by the experiences and emotions of being alive. Cunningham's The hours extends that idea through the decades to celebrate the timelessness of great literature, linking the authoress with a gay alter ego, and two generations of female readers whose life is inevitably changed by encountering a literary masterpiece.
Producer Scott Rudin (progenitor of the whole thing) demanded over 30 drafts out of screenwriter Sir David Hare, but the effort has payed off. Hare takes off Woolf's English gardening mitts and laces up American boxing gloves. He has chopped and changed, added monologues, and resisted voice over and cliché. And when the words need to really fly, he stands in no-one's way. This is a superb cinematic adaptation of an un-cinematic novel.
Production values are strong throughout, and even the smallest parts are admirably played. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey achieves the desired effect of three separate worlds without obviousness. Underneath it all, underscoring with power and nuance, is Phillip Glass's stampeding, thumping score. In his distinct language, evocative of the relentlessness of the hours, it is the thread that binds three storylines together, as if 1925, 1951 and 2001 are simultaneous.
Ed Harris more than matches his huge performance in Pollock, creating an honest portrait of a tortured man dying. He thrashes about his trashed loft, visited, coddled and cajoled by Clarissa at her cheeriest (he, of course, refers to her as "Mrs Dalloway"). Sallow and shrunken, and making a lot of noise, Harris' performance seems to border on overacting. It's not in the least; this becomes clear only as the links form toward the end of the picture.
But this is, above all, an actresses' film, or better yet, a diva film. Meryl Streep, for starters, tackles her best role in years. This modern day Mrs Dalloway, planning her doomed party for dear life, is no brooding angel, but a loving, determined and erudite woman worn down by the need to engage with people she loves. In a torturous scene, Clarissa has the first encounter in years with Richard's former lover Louis (played with superb coolness by Jeff Daniels) and faces for the first time his imminent death. The chirpy, apron clad chef collapses in a heap before her double-door Smeg, and pushes acting to its limits. It has been a decade since Streep has performed with this audacity and power... welcome back.
Julianne Moore's superb Cathy may be unfairly judged against her similar turn as another maudlin suburban 1950s housewife in Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven, but the comparison is slim. As a deeply unhappy woman whose inner torment is totally unnoticed by her doting war veteran husband (in yet another worthy moment for John C Reilly), Moore manages to convey anguish, desperation, love and resolution in one. At the end of Cathy's monumental "day", we find her immobile and silent, frozen on a toilet seat, while her dim-witted husband implores her to come to bed. Daldry daringly lets this scene linger, and linger some more, and Moore rises to the occasion. The moment is agonising, but it is all makes sense when the pieces fit together at the very end.
It is the astounding Kidman, however, in her career role to date, who delivers this film's, and this year's starriest performance. Her bright Aussie-American becomes a contralto, subverted into a nasal, London bark. She has distorted her radiant persona into a ghostly, lumbering, housecoat-clad frump, skulking about with cigarette dangling, downcast eyes and twitchy limbs. Moreover, she has added a pendulous prosthetic schnoz, giving her an astounding physical resemblance to Woolf. There is huge range to this role, the sad Goth who ritually buries dead birds but still manages to stress the servants, the feverishly scribbling novelist who ensures refreshments for her visiting sister's children (including her future biographer, nephew Quentin Bell). But what Kidman conveys to perfection is the intellect and emotions of the original genius that is about to break forth, raging against inner and invisible demons. This is huge, committed and daring acting, but the risks pay off.
In what may be one of the great directorial leaps of cinema, The hours is Stephen Daldry's second feature film, the first being Billy Elliot! Although a more seasoned hand may have altered the tone, managed the histrionics, propelled things differently, or achieved a more cinematic effect, there is no fault to be found here. Make some more, Steve. Please.
The hours contains such multitudes and exists on so many different levels that it is difficult to comprehend in one viewing; perhaps not unlike reading Virginia Woolf's dense texts. The metaphor of buying flowers ("Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself" is the book's opening line), cracking eggs, the meditation that someone beside Mrs Dalloway (which one?) must die, the power of literature to a lauded poet, a successful editor and an everyday reader, the undercurrent of woman-to-woman love, desire and longing in all of the stories, the intricate intermingling of relationships and a dozen other factors only compound its complexity. But take heed: it's rather rare to see a film intended for adults with brains, and rarer still to find one for sophisticated adults. This one is just that.
But just in case one thinks that there is not the slightest Hollywood bang in this flick, think again. The hours does indeed race to a finish. Clarissa and Richard confront each other in a jaw-dropper that could be out of Tennessee Williams. Identities are revealed, pieces fall into place. The ensuing climax, a scene between the elderly Cathy and the devastated Clarissa, is not only a meeting of two powerhouse actresses, it is cinema at its best, and seals all the stories closed.
Suicide may be a powerful undercurrent of this film, and it may tempt all of its three heroines, but The hours is not overtly morbid. What it is is elegant, brilliantly acted, superbly written, perfectly structured, and tremendous in impact. Just as all three women leave with their lives intact, we are reminded why Virginia Woolf needed to bump off Mr Smith. Brilliantly spoken by Ms Kidman is this film's final strophe "Someone has to die that the rest of us should value life more."
Security censorship classification
M (Adult themes, low level coarse language)
115 minutes (1:55 hours)