They say this book was extremely difficult to film. The novel is as famous as L.A. Confidential in its complex unfilmability, mapping the internal landscapes of three women bound unknowingly across time. I submit to you that this film is possibly equally difficult to review. I was fortunate enough to see this film with two ladies who had not only read Michael Cunningham’s novel but also Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the novel that informs The Hours. They were able to fill me in on key elements that were, for me, missing in the film and crucial to its total understanding. It should also be said that, even left to David Hare’s own narrative devices, director Stephen Daldry still manages to hook me and keep me involved, even when I was totally lost. That is an impressive task.
The film primarily takes place in Britain in 1923, Los Angeles in 1951, and New York in 2001, with bookends of 1941 Sussex. Got that? That’s the easy part. Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is writing Mrs. Dalloway in 1923, and suffering from an unspecified illness (it’s all in the book, you literate fans, this is a critique of the film adaptation only). Meanwhile, in 1951, Juliann Moore as sad housewife Laura Brown is reading Mrs. Dalloway. Her child conveys a sense of urgency about her situation that the narrative itself does not provide. A side note: Toni Collette has a scene in Laura’s kitchen which is brief but as salient as Judi Dench’s Oscar-winning 8 minutes in Shakespeare in Love. Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is sort of living an inside out Mrs. Dalloway life in New York in 2001, including caring for her spectacularly ill friend, Richard (Ed Harris).
My Hours fans were exceedingly pleased and gratified by the success of Hare’s screenplay in capturing what is truly an invisible thread of truth running deep inside this triad of lives. As one who had not read the novel, the parallels pulled me and held me like a web. I felt them and relied on them when some of the novel’s subtext was flying over my unread head.
Much has been said about the performances of these powerhouse actresses, who exude tremendous ensemble while never sharing a second of screen time. I agree with all the raves, all the lauding and fawning and everything for these ladies. Even Meryl Streep joked at the Golden Globes about her 483 nomination ensuring no win, but it cannot be overstated that she is one of the strongest performers to come from the 20th century. Julianne Moore (despite Lost World) is also a radiant workhorse of an actress, making everything look easy but hooking us despite ourselves. Kidman has always fluctuated but comes in strong behind her much-touted prosthetic.
Kidman’s skin is so ethereally luminous, that no matter how good the schnoz is, her skin glows in a way no latex can reproduce.
However, for such a film, high caliber actresses are key. Let us not forget Ed Harris or Jeff Daniels or John C. “Soon To Be A Household Name” Reilly! In New York, Harris is a dying poet and Daniels is his ex. Harris does not disappoint; in the showier role, the deathly makeup, he is hard core. But dear, under-appreciated Jeff “Dumb & Dumber” Daniels plays in a scene where I am totally riveted, totally open in my heart to feel this performance. What made it so marked was that this scene felt (to me) the most like tons and tons of information had been omitted, and only those who had read it could even fathom what he and Streep are talking about; but Daniels made me care, made be believe, as much as if I had been in the know. That is a performance of note, Dear Readers.
The themes are there for you to discover – even without the book’s help you will feel the sacrifices and noisy distractions these women fill their emptiness with (with varying results), all at the altar of men’s needs, and not even a woman’s love can fill the void. It’s beautiful, and it made me want to read the book(s); but if it had not been for my companions, I would have been deeply lost. Beautifully shot, with an unobtrusive score by Philip Glass of all people, you sense the film deserves your love and you want to find out more about it.
MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/27/02 (NY/LA)
Time in minutes 114
Director Stephen Daldry
Studio Paramount & Miramax