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The Hours
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Ed Harris, Allison Janney, Eileen Atkins, Toni Collette, Stephen Dillane, Clair Danes, Jeff Daniels, John C. Reilly and Miranda Richardson
Director: Stephen Daldry
Scriptwriter: David Hare (from the novel by Michael Cunningham)
Music: Phillip Glass
Paramount Pictures/Miramax
Running Time: two hours
Rating: PG 13

The phrase 'Tradition of Quality' is not a particularly positive one in film circles. It's the epithet Francois Truffaut gave to French films of the '40s and '50s, movies that announced their importance by their literary subject matter, their stuffy acting, and their general lack of creativity. It could be easily applied to the numerous bio-pics and costume dramas that flood our theaters around the holidays, but it would be unfair to apply it to The Hours. For this film directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) is striking, intensely creative, and genuinely thought-provoking.

The Hours begins with a suicide, and it's not the last one we'll see before its two hours are over. That's not to say The Hours is a depressing story (it's not), but it is a story about depression. Three stories, in fact. The first features Virginia Woolf as she starts to write what will become Mrs. Dalloway. The second takes place in '50s Los Angeles where Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is trying to cope with the ennui that's settled over her life. The final one takes place in contemporary New York, as Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is about to throw a party for Richard (Ed Harris), her dear friend and prize-winning poet who's dying of AIDS.

If you've read Mrs. Dalloway, you might notice a slight similarity between the novel and Clarissa's tale. That similarity is highlighted in the film, as Daldry cuts between the three stories in provocative ways. Someone picks up a vase in 1920s London, and another person sets it down in 2002 New York. Virginia Woolf imagines a woman going out to gather flowers, and we see Clarissa heading to the local florist. The middle story's relationship to the other two is more oblique at first. Laura is actually reading Mrs. Dalloway and her psychic situation doesn't seem that far from Woolf's, but it's not until the film's final act that the connections become clear.

One of the things I like most about The Hours (and there is much to admire) is how it deals with the issue of mental illness. So many films take the side of the person suffering or the side of family and friends who have to deal with the sufferer. The Hours portrays both. We see the agony of a person who can't seem to find the will to live, but we also see what that does to friends, spouses, and children. The story (from the book by Michael Cunningham and adapted by David Hare) is remarkably balanced. And it's also a story of hope, of creativity, and of love. My friend Garth found it "too literary," but I'm not sure what that means. Ok, there aren't any explosions, trick endings, or fantasy dream sequences, but there is a compelling plot, beautiful imagery, and some of the best acting you'll see all year.

You know you have a terrific cast when Meryl Streep is one of the weaker links. Julianne Moore follows up her triumph in Far from Heaven with another magisterial performance. Nicole Kidman disappears into her role as Virginia Woolf with grace and strength. The supporting cast of Ed Harris, Toni Collette, and especially John C. Reilly (he's always great) is marvelous. It's that sort of acting we hope to see around Oscar time.

Regular readers of this space know that I'm not a huge fan of literary adaptations, but The Hours is different. It's smart, for one. It doesn't
just re-create the book and hope people will be impressed with its big words and fancy costumes (hallmarks of the Tradition of Quality). It
translates those literary ideas into cinematic concepts. By using visual rhymes to tie the stories together, Daldry creates a visual language with deep, rich metaphors. By using provocative cuts, editor Peter Boyle establishes an engaging, lively pace that doesn't allow the mood to
overwhelm the audience. And production designer Maria Djurkovic has captured our impressions of early-20th-century London and mid-20th-century L.A. I wish I could say as much about Philip Glass's score, but that's the movie's one misstep. Fortunately, that's a small matter.

Movies about depression show up only around Oscar Time, but they rarely arrive with as much energy and emotion as The Hours does. This one's not Tradition of Quality. It's just quality. 

by J. Robert Parks 12/21/2002

At this particular screening of The Hours, I was the only woman present.  It was interesting to note male comments which included, "Well, it really bashes men" and "not so favorable to guys."  In the meantime, I was thinking, "The writer really got it. There are some women who need to take care of someone, but when their own needs are unknowingly forced into the background by this 'master need,' idiosyncrasies appear. When the woman recognizes this and realizes the other party is selfishly relying on her, there is a predicament." By any chance, did someone recognize themselves in the film?   As Shakespeare wrote, "Aye, there is the rub."

Not having read the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, this critic was unprepared for the rapid  transition between three stories, each a generation apart from the other. This is well done by scriptwriter David Hare.  The editing, plus Phillip Glass's exquisite soundtrack with solo piano, really makes "The Hours," though.   In this case, one isn't bothered by the frequent piano theme, which signals a transitory moment ahead.  And, who can separate the three leading ladies---Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep---into acting categories?  As with "8 Women," the ensemble group reigns supreme.  They play off each other like well-modulated notes from a finely tuned piano. Michael Cunningham's novel deals with Virginia Woolf (Kidman) writing her break-through novel, "Mrs. Dalloway," which reveals one day in the life of a woman who holds parties to fill the emptiness in her life.  As Woolf begins the novel, she is living in the English countryside with her dutiful husband (Dillane) and suffers greatly from depression.  A generation later, pregnant housewife Laura (Moore) walks through her suburban days like a "Stepford Wife."  Her husband (Reilly) thinks life is idyllic, but their small son knows something is amiss with Mommy.  A generation after that, editor Clarissa (Streep) is planning a party to honor her former boyfriend, Richard (Harris) who  is dying from AIDS.  He has just won a prestigious poetry prize.  Clarissa lives with Sally (Janney) and Clarissa's daughter, Julia (Danes).  As a day progresses, we see Woolf working on the novel, Laura making a momentous decision and Clarissa dealing with one crisis after another.  The camera cuts from Laura arranging flowers in her kitchen to Clarissa buying flowers.  There is a seamless flow here that is lovely to watch.

Flowers play an important part in The Hours.  Woolf wears dresses with tightly bunched groups of flowers, much as her psyche is tightly in control. Laura has a splashy flower pattern to her clothes as though to hide her true self.  Clarissa is either carrying or arranging flowers as though she is holding her situation at arm's length. Then, there are the men of the film.  Yes, this movie doesn't show men in a flattering light at times.  No, there isn't a bashing, but these particular men have "chosen" the women and constantly let the women know it.  "You are a goddess on a pedestal, therefore be perfect and act perfect."  Oh, what a burden to bear.  Woolf's husband catered to her, but failed to see the real Virginia.  Laura's husband was fond of telling her that during and after WWII, he dreamed of the perfect wife and now he had her. (Watch Laura try to bake the perfect cake.)  Clarissa is caring for Richard and it is a challenge, but then he reminds her of the first time he saw her at age 19 and she was perfection.  Ah, the word "perfect," and all the ramifications, thereof, is quite a load to place on someone.
Michael Cunningham wrote the novel, David Hare adapted it to the screen, Stephen Daldry directed the film and Phillip Glass wrote the music.  Yet, it takes the women to bring the story to life.  The writer (Kidman), the reader (Moore), and the editor (Streep) make the literary world rich and available to the audience.  There is a love and power of words here, from writing them, to reading them, to editing them.  It makes you want to run to the nearest bookstore or library and sit there for hours, reading.  Computers? Can you hold the pages in your hands or caress a leather bookbinding?  Can you tell I love words? Can you tell I enjoyed The Hours?  

Copyright 2003 Marie Asner
Submitted 1/20/03


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