Saturday, August 28, 2010

"The Hours" Revisited--A Film Journal

(Grab a tall drink, kick back, and enjoy for a while.  If you’ve not seen “The Hours” do it now, or beware of spoilers.)

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I love the film of Michael Cunningham's "The Hours". I just looked at it again last week.

I revisit great, favorite films all the time...Especially since my trips to the theater are dwindling, owing to a lack of pictures that interest me, or that sustain my creative spark, or that feed my mind or heart...

"The Hours" transports me to new worlds, and helps shed light on my own. It entertains me with seamless craft, and inspires me with that craft. It is a complete movie experience for me.

This is less a review than a tribute, a re-discovery, and how I see it today, after many viewings.

The book was an easy but intricate read, requiring just one winter weekend to complete. Cunningham's formidable achievement was to update and modernize Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway", and tell that story from the point of view of three female protagonists, each representing a different stage in the liberation of women.

Stephen Daldry's film version is exquisite and subtle. It's a latticework of connections between real and fictional characters. It blends poetic compositions to illustrate its enigmatic themes of freedom, fulfillment, and sacrifice. Dialogue is fraught with meaning, as are the silences in between. The subtleties of sound are as important as the dramatic, insistent music.

It is as introspective, and anticipatory, as a Bergman piece, but more accessible, if one watches it with active care. One may recall the intensity of Timothy Hutton's epiphany in "Ordinary People"; "The Hours" begins at this high pitch and sustains it for its running time.

It's a story of three women from three generations, whose kinship extends across the decades and whose experiences are universal.


Nicole Kidman is a revelation as the feminist hero and author Virginia Woolf. Now that the curiosity (and the jokes) surrounding Kidman’s makeup have faded, Kidman's work can be fully appreciated. She loses herself in this role. Her carriage, the modulation of her voice, the surprising variety of strength and gentility in her speech, the expressiveness of her eyes...all combine for a marvelous performance. Woolf wrote “Mrs. Dalloway” to examine life, and the choices one has to live or die. Woolf focused on one day to represent a woman's entire life, and by writing about one woman’s life, represented the universal experience of women. Woolf created a first sentence: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself..." which, in "The Hours", resonates across generations. This is brilliantly dramatized in the film.

As Laura Brown, the 1950's housewife who is inspired by Woolf's novel, Julianne Moore communicates her ennui, boredom, and depression, her regret at leaving her son, and her longing to fulfill herself outside of the conventional expectations of wife and mother, with an inward look in her eyes, a tilt of her head, a quiet subduing of the primal emotions churning under her housewife's exterior. In her final scene, explaining and justifying the terrible choices she made to escape a deathly existence, she mesmerizes us with a brilliant monologue, delivered in barely a whisper.

 Meryl Streep is the synthesis of Woolf and her characters and the beneficiary of Woolf's and Mrs. Brown's struggles. As Clarissa Vaughn, she is the direct parallel to Dalloway, down to the nickname bestowed upon her by her former lover, the poet Richard, who is dying of AIDS. Clarissa embodies the modern woman, whose experience moves her beyond mere survival and establishment of independence, to the meaning of happiness itself.  Streep is always so good, and she is matched here by such superb actors all around, that it is possible to overlook her stunning achievement here, in what may be her most beautiful portrayal since "Sophie's Choice".

Why do we stay alive? According to Clarissa, we stay alive for one is quite simply, "what we do". Each woman is confronted with her life, and the choices available to her for staying alive....The first one chooses to end her life to escape the impossible trap it has become. The second one decides to live, but escapes into a new identity, defying all societal expectations. The third one has evolved beyond the necessity to conform, but must accept the loss of a loved one who chooses to die; in doing so, she arrives at the doorstep of a happiness that has been around her all along.

Ed Harris is ferocious and heartbreaking as Richard, who in Woolf’s words is "the poet, the visionary". He must die, so another can live...again, Woolf's inspiration. The revelation of his identity, and the realization of how his character connects the others, is a profound and breathtaking moment in the film. To those familiar with “Mrs. Dalloway”, Richard’s fate still shocks us, even as we have come to expect it.

The way this film is structured is at once delicate and necessary....every image, every cut, in some way relates one time period to another, and connects all to "Mrs. Dalloway" and Woolf's philosophy. Motifs appear and connect to each other: flowers (for parties) and eggs (to prepare food for parties) are feminine symbols.

The flowers Mrs. Dalloway/Clarissa buys "herself" are a symbol of independence. Woolf has flowers arranged for her by her housekeepers, on whom Virginia is dependent. She poignantly places a single flower on the grave of the delicate dying bird in the garden. Mrs. Brown's husband buys the birthday flowers instead of his wife, depriving her of her ability to fulfill her most basic role.  Flowers are freedom, are "possibility".

Eggs may well represent fertility, and the breaking of eggs is the visual and aural representation of loss and regret. When Woolf's cooks break eggs during a tense exchange, it constantly reminds us of Virginia's fragility. Julianne Moore's Brown is not seen using eggs for her husband's cake; instead, her neighbor (Toni Colette) confides that she has an ovarian cyst, and Brown's physical reaction to her friend's bad news reveals a passion that she must pursue by sacrificing everything. Mrs. Dalloway breaks the eggs herself, and separates the yolks, and she lets them slip off her fingers so sadly as she recounts her love affair with Richard, that the brief image is unforgettable.

"The Hours" is expertly edited to establish these constant connections between characters....All three women are planning character washes her face and in the next cut another face comes into frame...the sound of a dog barking in the Woolf garden reminds us that Mrs. Brown's friend asked her to walk her dog...astute viewers may hear the little boy's name called, and understand his function to the entire story... All three women struggle to share a kiss with another woman, with varying repercussions.

Each period is photographed in a different color scheme with varying sharpness or softness of focus, to easily identify each each sequence, even as we're being reminded of another.

Phillip Glass' score, which pulses and grabs us deeply, also helps to tie together the separate stories and unifies them thematically. It is, to me, one of the most effective uses of movie music to represent the drama that unfolds quietly, but shatters each character inwardly.

This is moviemaking of taste and passion, carefully building scenes to grand perfection. There is not one wasted moment...each piece is perfectly in place...there is suspense, catharsis, and time for contemplation of universal human truths that most of us prefer to ignore. And to those who accept the film's invitation to ponder these characters' mysteries, the experience is stimulating, and oddly comforting.

In terms of my preoccupations and ideas about re-invention, "The Hours" stands as a beacon (the reference to the lighthouse as connected to Virginia Woolf is intended). Virginia Woolf knew that her demons would consume her in the boredom of the suburbs and needed the creative stimulation of city life. Lacking that, she lived vicariously through her characters in "Mrs. Dalloway", and then, "looked life in the face, knew it for what it was, and then put it away." Laura Brown felt that society would not forgive her for breaking free of her role as a wife and mother, but "chose life" for herself, and sacrificed everything to start anew. Clarissa Vaughn had the independence and the means to be happy, and functioned at high levels, but needed a close re-evaluation of her life, saw it clearly for what it was, and accepted it.

A marvel of a film...and I welcome your thoughts, and discussion.


  1. One of my favorites as well. A gorgeous film. Loved the mention of "Ordinary People."

  2. Not just one of my favorites, but in my pantheon of Top Five Favorite Films. I see that while we may have our differences on movies like Inception, when it comes to the movies that last, the ones that we bring with us into our daily lives, the ones that we yearn to revisit again and again, we've got the same (great) taste.

    And, oh my God, I *never* noticed in all my viewings the egg thing! Or the dog connection! I have to revisit it yet again (yay!)!

    One last thing: I think this is easily Streep's greatest performance...that I've seen. Sophie's Choice is a close second, followed by A Prairie Home Companion. This is also the same year as Adaptation!

  3. Eric, thank you for visiting..nice to see you here again. And Walter, I so appreciate your in-depth response. I am in impeccable company with both of you in my "Hours" fan club.

  4. The Hours is one of the most purely absorbing movies of our time. Beautifully scored, precisely edited, superbly acted. It touches me on so many levels and reminds us of the ripple effect that all lives ... one by one ... can have on each other tragically or heroically. I remember reading the book and discovering that the little boy is Richard -- wearing his astronaut pajamas. The movie is just as heartbreaking, devastating and ultimately profound. The Hours is the perfect answer to the question, "When is great film great art?"