To many, The Hours, has come to epitomize the prostethic, bio-pic , academy award winning formula. Witnessed in any other film in which a gorgeous, Hollywood star goes to great lengths to “common” herself/himself through prosthetics. But, to me, The Hours started as Michael Cunningham’s novel. The movie is, happily, surprisingly, welcomingly no different in its lyrical eloquence. Stop right there – all ye who hold grudge against the so-called “chick flick” genre. Yes, this is a film primarily about women, but, but, but…don’t you want to see Meryl Streep in love with Allison Janney? I thought so. Continue on, brave traveller, you’re about to embark on one of cinema’s finest adventures.
“I shan’t recover this time,” she says, in that voice – the voice that sounds simultaneously as though she were smoking a cigarette and gargling with small river stones. Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf will redefine your perception of who Woolf was, and how she spent her last years – it will, quite singularly, rock your world. Of course she won an Academy Award – the first five minutes of the film is a testament to her achievement. Forget about the nose. You can do it – just ignore it. You must if you’re to get through it.
And Phillip Glass – dear God – if I could, I would wrap my arms around his score and live there forever. Haunting, sensual, it opens door after door with a beckoning finger that asks you only to follow.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself, or around myself, or dodging about the story. In some regard, that seems appropriate with a film like The Hours in which three, seemingly unrelated, stories are intertwined. As all three of these women pause at a single moment, across the ages, not quite starting their day, not quite ready to begin, you are given the first sense of what awaits – sublime, gut-wrenching drama.
I laugh a little when at last, the title credits have faded away and Virginia and her husband, Leonard, have their morning discussion about eating during which, Leonard says gingerly, “Right. Lunch then. A proper lunch, husband and wife sitting down together. Soup, pudding and all. By force, if necessary.” If you’re anyone who knows anyone who writes or creates or does anything with their hands, you will of course recognize some of this speech. I, myself, must be forced to eat several times a day. I simply cannot be bothered. And this is precisely why I find myself immediately engrossed in the movie. Despite the fact that these events occur decades ago, across a vast ocean, to two people I have never met, I suddenly feel an intimacy between the characters that makes me care. Yes, Virginia. There is a lunch. And you must eat it.
But, Leonard. She has a first sentence. She retreats to her room, a room of her own, and chooses a pen, lights a cigarette, and begins. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
All of the women in this film are delightful – and are simply luminous, but especially Julianne Moore, whom I’ve secretly loved since I first laid eyes on her in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. What a delight to see her now, in a time piece, looking like a 1940s beauty as the mournful, lethargic housewife of John C. Reilly.
“A woman’s whole life in a single day. Just one day. And in that day, a whole life.”
Unlike some people, I don’t shrink at the thought of seeing my favorite, most cherished books translated to celluloid. I think we, all of us, have unique, important perspectives, visions that are equally as creative and valid as the original seed from whence they spring. That said, I may have felt a tiny tremor of fear when I first saw The Hours. I went alone, at Christmas time, when I was home after graduating from Eastern Washington University. I planned it this way, to see it alone, in the darkness, as a treat for surviving. And sometimes, movies should be seen alone so as to drown out the noise of life – to lose yourself completely.
Ed Harris is gritty, emaciated, real. I still feel so achingly uncomfortable looking at him while he tells Clarissa (Meryl Streep) that he has failed, wobbling around his small NYC flat until he falls into his easy chair and sighs.
“You kissed me on the beach,” he says. It’s so touching, these two, and it is as if they have shared a lifetime when he asks her if she would be angry if he died. If you have not yet had a conversation like this with someone you love (your mother, your father, husband, wife, sister, brother, best and dearest friend), you will eventually. We all do.
And don’t ever come into my writing room when the door is closed, or I swear…when Woolf’s maid enters her room and interrupts her work, don’t you just love the look that comes over Kidman’s face as she dips her head, cigarette held high?
Isn’t it delightful when Kidman’s Woolf slinks down into the kitchen moments later to pretend as though she knows what she’s supposed to do as the lady of the house? She’s a writer, for heaven’s sake, not a house-frau. She’s busy with her writing – and, by the way, that’s a legitimate career, even in 1923. Anyone who’s read any Woolf biographies knows that she was a voracious walker, a fact that is only subtly touched upon in the film.
I hate parties, by the way. And the fact that this entire film basically revolves around one ominous party or another makes me a bit uncomfortable. So, whenever the party preparation activities begin to take place onscreen, my mind wanders a bit. For instance, does anyone else find it a bit odd that every character in this book is in some way confused, sexually? Everyone knows that Virginia Woolf had dalliances with Vita Sackville-West, of course (or, if you didn’t, you know now). And seeing as how the story of The Hours is built around “Mrs. Dalloway” which is about a woman who remembers the briefest kiss between she and her best friend as her one moment of real love in a lifetime, maybe it’s no shocker to see Julianne Moore kiss Toni Collete (another amazing actress who has yet to achieve the renown she so rightfully deserves), Meryl Streep kiss Allison Janney, and Nicole Kidman kiss Miranda Richardson…well, let’s just say this is the rarest of rare treats. Enjoy it. Enjoy it. Enjoy it. Lord knows that even the slightest foray into a gay role, no matter how benign, can mean death to even the biggest stars. How brave then, how miraculous, how wondrous this particular experience is.
When Woolf lies down next to the small, dead bird, her head pressed into the soil, her eyes narrowing, I can sense she’s a bit undone. I love that Stephen Daldry switches very quickly from Kidman’s face to Moore’s, as if they were lying in bed together, staring at each other across the ages. Everything about the way Daldry moves through this story is epic in its tactile sensuality. You can feel the quiet longing in Moore’s character as she empties the medicine cabinet into her handbag, made worse by the fact her small son is alone in the house with her.
“Bad hostess!” Clarissa begins to panic in her NYC kitchen as she prepares for the party. “It’s just too much,” she says to Lewis, Richard’s ex-lover (played by Jeff Daniels), as he stands before her. Meryl is magnificent, eyes red and puffy slumped on the floor, as usual, but don’t start taking this for granted. Ever. She’s one-of-a-kind brilliant.
All of the most important conversations I’ve ever had, not unlike the one that passes between Streep and Daniels in this scene, have happened in the kitchen. Every one of them. There is a sense of familial comfort and ease amongst the appliances of a kitchen, where so many meals have been made and eaten. Coming from a large family, everything began and ended in the kitchen, so to see these characters standing in Streep’s kitchen, each coming to terms with the fact Richard is dying, is real. But someone should be eating and someone should be cooking, or preparing something to cook.
Which reminds me, if my mother had ever started dropping me off at a “friendly” neighbor lady’s house to dally off to “take care of something” – which in this case meant she was going to go attempt suicide, again – I think I would have fought harder to keep her from leaving me. My mother only dropped me off at daycare once, on a military base, and I screamed and cried so hard she made it only as far as her car before returning to retrieve me.
Is it just me, or does anyone else find it extremely unfair that up until the 1980s everyone smoked and drank as much as they pleased? Sure, we can live longer lives because we’re not drinking and smoking to our hearts content, but, is that a fair trade off? All right. I suppose it is. Maybe it goes without saying.
If I was going to attempt suicide through an ingestion of a multitude of pills, I think I would check into the most lavish hotel I could find – I’ve heard this is typically what happens. Instead, Moore’s character checks into the Normandy Hotel which looks like any other hotel I’ve ever stayed in, except it has better wallpaper and beautiful light. And even though I would never attempt suicide, especially as a pregnant woman, I can hardly judge. Despair is evil like that. And it is equally as mysterious – for, in the end, is it the image of the cake she’s made her husband for his birthday, sitting on the kitchen table, awaiting his arrival or is it “Mrs. Dalloway” that saves her life? And that image of Moore on the hotel bed, her pregnant belly naked, as water rushes up and envelopes her terrifies me every single time.
By now, we’re starting to feel the warmth and the lateness of the day – the clock behind Vanessa’s (played by Miranda Richardson) head as Virginia kisses her says 4 p.m. How will it end? How are all these people connected?
“Do you think I may, one day, escape?” Virginia asks Vanessa, breathing heavily after their kiss.
“One day,” Vanessa sighs.
It kills me. Her hand shoved down in her pocket, the other in a fist, tears streaming down her face. Kidman absolutely shines. If you can’t feel her torment, you’re simply dead inside and you should stop drinking. Immediately.
It’s about this time that Claire Danes finally, triumphantly arrives as Meryl Streep’s daughter, Julia. It’s been years since “My So Called Life” and I’m so happy to see Danes again. Her energy practically ruptures the frames she shares with Streep’s sorrowful character as she waves her turquoise colored latex-gloved hands around as she complains about Richard. Where do you think they get all the books they stock in character’s bookshelves during scenes like this? Again, I’m fascinated with the prop people and their mysterious magic.
I wish, as Streep and Danes lay in bed together speaking softly of the beginning of happiness, that I could have a moment like that with my mother. How lovely then, the motherly snuggle that comes later when Danes scrunches her eyebrows and looks woefully at Streep.
It’s good knowing how Woolf meets her end, in a way. I can only take so much. Even so, when Leonard tracks her down at the train station, my heart is pounding, even though I’ve seen this movie and I know now is not the time. His utter terror is palpable. It’s nearly 5.3o p.m. now, time for dinner, “Our obligation to eat Nelly’s dinner,” Leonard says before spewing off a list of unsavory ailments like “fits, moods, blackouts, hearing voices…” So, yes. Yes, Virginia, there is a dinner, and you must eat it.
“My life has been stolen from me,” Kidman breathes. Do you ever feel that way, too? I wonder if it’s just a symptom of getting older and being swept up and along with life. “I choose not to suffocate. You cannot find peace by avoiding life…”
The final word: This film is miraculous, and singular in it’s rich character development, it’s depth, it’s textures and landscapes. See it through to the end, won’t you? I promise it will all make sense then, when all of the stories come colliding together in a cascade of resolution. It is worth watching at least once a year, when you’re feeling steady enough to take it all on, for it serves as a reminder of the weight of a day. A single day.