Directed by Stephen Daldry / Release (Wide): Dec 27, 2002 / Miramax Films / PG-13, 1 hr. 54 min
I recently caught this film on HBO a couple nights ago. Nostalgic, I dug up an old review I wrote of it on December 20, 2002, for a defunct fiction/arts website known as Under Obstruction.
Mrs. Dalloway, a novel written by stream-of-consciousness patron Virginia Woolf in 1925, has always been a personal literary favorite, in spite its intentional narrative tangents. Yet, The Hours, as an unlikely novel-to-screen adaptation, fares better than the book. I may be received with some persecution here by affirming this; but I say it unregrettably. Based on the designedly derivative novel by Michael Cunningham, and directed by Stephen Daldry, The Hours is an ambitious film that could’ve easily slipped on its own tears and poignant lesbian kisses. Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is compartmentalized in 1923 (I believe)—away from London, London-life proves fatal to her sense of sanity. Laura Brown (Julian Moore) is compartmentalized in Los Angeles, 1951, an age of deceptively sun-bathed innocence. Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is compartmentalized in 2001, New York, where she meticulously watches over an award winning poet-cum-ex-husband of hers (Ed Harris). He is dying of AIDS. Each principal character experiences much of the same forms of depression and dementia, each one pondering suicide. And while the tale opens up with Woolf’s historical suicide-drowning in Sussex, 1941, the audience is jostled—much like a pinball—into three time periods whereby each woman mentioned above is in some way linked to Woolf’s novel. Daldry doesn’t necessarily try to connect each episode with glaring parallels, but instead, he uses an omniscient, over-arching tone of sadness to bring the disparate stories together, as well as some of the instances found in Mrs. Dalloway. In spite of the mind-numbing fact that Woolf created the Dalloway character, all three women–by some form of literary telepathy–experience similar heartrending feelings of hopelessness. The film also touches on the timid, if not cryptic, lesbian romances found in the novel. Brown, for instance, a pregnant woman with suicide on her mind kisses a woman-friend of hers on the lips—right when I started to regret the histrionic dialogue. At that moment I thought: oh, I see, OK, interesting angle. Brown desperately prepares a cake for her husband, with as much obsessive preponderance as Vaughan’s party preparations for her dying ex-husband. But I don’t necessarily want to reveal how intimately these story elements are connected, for fear of giving away how instrumental Richard is to both the film and Woolf’s novel. At its core, the film is an ingenious thematic study of Mrs. Dalloway, exploring both the very nature of the novel’s purpose and the elusive motivation behind Woolf’s strange behavior. Through a window of fiction, the book is enriched with meaning, and given vibrancy, which is why The Hours, for me, is almost the perfect type of “prefatory” material (ignoring that secondary source scholar in your local library). The film demonstrates the subtext of Mrs. Dalloway effectively. This is very difficult material to make filmic, to say the least. By compounding fact and fiction, Daldry has succeeded with orchestrating three very disturbing stories that ironically give living life a viable experience in the face of death. And thanks to all the “in-tune” performances (especially by Kidman), these themes of how life is defined by death are given color and feeling.