Woolf in sheep’s clothing
The Hours is director Stephen Daldry’s film of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, with a script by playwright David Hare. It’s intelligently made and literary in the best sense of the word: It makes you feel like you’ve just read a really good book, as opposed to something like Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity, which makes you feel like you’ve just had a book read to you.
Like Personal Velocity, The Hours showcases three of the best actresses in movies in three separate but interrelated stories. The first story, in terms of chronology, opens in 1941 with the suicide of the British writer Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman, convincingly transformed by a false nose but looking younger than Woolf’s 59 years). Then, it flashes back to 1923 to show the writer contending with her mental illness while composing her masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway. She wants to return to London, rages against what she sees as a prison in suburban Richmond, and is uncomforted by the concern of her loving husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane).
This much of the film, though not strictly biographical, is consistent with the known facts of Woolf’s life. The rest of the movie is wholly fictional, showing two women whose own lives—coincidentally or otherwise—have a number of parallels with Woolf’s own and with that of her creation, Clarissa Dalloway.
First, in 1951, we meet Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) a pregnant Los Angeles housewife who is reading Woolf’s novel with glum recognition. Laura’s husband, Dan (John C. Reilly), adores her and loves their life together. But Laura’s small son (Jack Rovello) is the kind of observant, self-possessed little tyke who turns up more often in books and movies than in real life, and he senses his mother’s unhappiness—possibly even better than she does herself. He watches her every move, reading the inchoate signs of discontent, waiting for something he fears—knows—is coming, but he doesn’t know what it is. (It comes, in time, but the way it happens is one of the film’s aha! moments, as I suspect it is in the book, as well.)
And moving on to 2001, we find Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), whose resemblance to Mrs. Dalloway goes beyond their first names. We see her as she goes about the preparations for a party honoring her friend Richard (Ed Harris), an award-winning poet dying of AIDS whose platonic relationship with Clarissa goes back to college. His nickname for her is “Mrs. Dalloway” because she’s always had the same kind of confident competence; in time, again, we come to understand that his memories of the novel are not entirely pleasant and that the nickname may have a slightly rueful tinge.
The film, like the novel, interweaves the three stories, moving from one to another when an intersection—a word, an image—arises. “Mrs. Dalloway thought that she would get the flowers herself,” Woolf writes. Laura reads the same sentence 28 years later, and finally Clarissa Vaughn calls to her partner, “Sally, I think I’ll get the flowers myself.” (There’s also a playful intersection that only a movie can offer: The florist to whom Clarissa goes is played by Eileen Atkins, who wrote the script for Marleen Gorris’ excellent 1997 movie of Mrs. Dalloway.)
In the final analysis, the structure of The Hours is a bit self-conscious, and it’s a writer’s conceit; whether we go along with it depends on the execution. I haven’t read Cunningham’s novel, but his Pulitzer argues that he pulled it off. The movie succeeds thanks to the depth of talent behind and before the camera. Hare’s script has a symmetrical elegance that is complemented by Daldry’s fluid direction, and our admiration for the elegance entices us to accept the doggedness of the symmetry.
The supporting cast—Miranda Richardson, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Claire Danes and Jeff Daniels—adds to the pedigree of the movie. I’ve only skimmed the novel and spot-checked scenes, but Daldry and Hare’s movie not only made me want to read it, but also made me feel, in a way, as if I already had.