Friday, February 21, 2014

The Hours

Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

With a film like The Hours, I’m not sure where to start. I’m honestly lost for a good way to even start writing about this. Do I discuss the interwoven story that carefully builds up connections between three different women in three different times, each life being shaped by the lives that came before? Do I go with the incredibly performances? The magnificent screenplay that not only makes these stories easy to follow but also produces some of the most powerful and best female roles of the last 20 years? There are so many places I could go that I’m lost on where to start. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

The Hours tells three stories at the same time. The first concerns author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) as she attempts to write her novel Mrs. Dalloway in the 1920s. The second story takes place in the 1950s as a housewife named Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) deals with thoughts of suicide while reading Woolf’s novel. In the third story, Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) has a day that mirrors that of the protagonist of Woolf’s novel as she plans a party for a friend and former lover who has been given a prestigious award.

These stories are not shown in sequence, but are intertwined, each playing out in pieces as we watch. Just as we see them all at the same time, the stories seem to influence each other, with events in one being mirrored in one or both of the others. All three, for instance, deal with thoughts and instances of suicide. Woolf herself was frequently suicidal (and eventually did kill herself); Laura in the second story is also a suicide risk, and Clarissa’s friend Richard Brown (Ed Harris), suffering from AIDS and convinced he is being honored only because he is dying, is a suicide threat as well. We learn eventually that Richard Brown is the son of Laura Brown in the second story, that her son Richie (Jack Rovello) grows up to be Richard.

Woolf’s story is mildly interesting. She suffers through a visit from her sister (Miranda Richardson) and deals with what to do with the protagonist of her new book. She also struggles with her fear of her own servants, who bully her somewhat, and with her bipolar disorder. Not nearly enough for a film on its own, this story serves as a necessary backbone for the rest of the film. Clarissa’s story is one that probably could stand on its own. In many ways, she is the Mrs. Dalloway of Woolf’s book, following her schedule from the book. Clarissa’s unusual relationship with Richard—the two had been lovers but are now both openly gay—is central to this story and to Clarissa’s sense of identity. Richard’s opinion of her colors every experience and encounter she has, causing her to break down, especially in front of Lewis (Jeff Daniels), another of Richard’s former lovers.

It is in the middle story that the film finds its weakest point. This has nothing to do with the performance by Julianne Moore (she was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress) or with John C. Reilly who plays her husband. It’s worth noting that Moore was nominated both for that award and for Best Actress in Far from Heaven the same year. Reilly was in two of the five films nominated for Best Picture. The fault is not with them, but with this part of the story itself. We’re left to intuit why Laura is suicidal, and we’re not really given much of a reason beyond existential despair and ennui. We’re given nothing tangible as to why she has suicidal thoughts until the end of the film when that story has already been completed. Before that, we’re left to guess for ourselves what would drive her to that point.

Much of the success of the film rests on the shoulders of Kidman as Woolf. For starters, I almost didn’t recognize her in the non-glamorous role—this film was, after all, made before plastic surgery and botox pulled her skin taut. Generally understated as befits someone playing a woman caught in the throes of dealing with her own mental illness, Kidman is spectacular. Ed Harris, nominated as well, has only a couple of scenes but is memorable in the first and riveting in the second.

The Hours is the sort of film that makes me wonder why roles like this can’t be written for women more often. The talent in terms of the actors is there—it’s mildly surprising Meryl Streep wasn’t nominated herself—and it’s evident that films with a number of solid women’s roles are compelling enough to find an audience. Is it that Hollywood continues to believe that a film in which women are the central characters simply isn’t enough for a mainstream audience? I don’t know.

Ultimately, The Hours is two-thirds brilliant and one-third very good. That the middle story is noteworthy for not standing up to the other two is remarkable, since the middle story is about as good as anything else from 2002. It’s just not as good as the rest of it.

Why to watch The Hours: It’s holy-shit good.
Why not to watch: The middle story falters.


  1. This is one of my most favourite movies of all time. I am continually amazed and mesmerised by it. The Moore story is actually my favourite part of the movie. She can't live up to the standards put on her by society. She's in a way a look at Woolf herself- the kind of woman she thought she was, which is why she wrote Mrs. Dalloway to show that even a woman as "well-put" as Clarissa Dalloway, or like Meryl Streep's character in the movie, could unravel.

    This is probably one of the most feminine movies I have ever seen too, not just in themes and the amazing actressing, but also the look. So many flowers! From the gardens to the flower shops to the wallpapers to the aprons. The score is fantastic too. Also, this is one of the few adaptations that surpasses the novel it is based on.

    1. Oh and Stephen Dillane is AHMAZING in this film too. Seriously one of my most favourite supporting performances of all time.

    2. I'll bow to your superior knowledge in terms of the adaptation. I'm not familiar with the original work.

      I can't say I'm terribly surprised that you most like the part that I least like in the sense that I think Julianne Moore's story. I think it's one you either get completely or kind of don't get at all, and I fell into the latter camp on it. It's one that you need to understand at a deep emotional level to understand it, and it missed with me. I'd draw the comparison to a film like Field of Dreams--if you don't get it on a deep, emotional, almost inexpressible level, you've missed out on what makes it move. That may well be the case here.

      Regardless, The Hours is proof that a "women's" movie can be made that will resonate for men as much as it does women. We need more screenplays like this one and more filmmakers willing to take a chance on making this sort of film. I was knocked out by it.

  2. I had real serious problems with The Hours. It seemed to me to present suicide as a valid way out instead of the ultimate act of selfishness that I believe it to be. Surely there was nothing wrong with the acting or production itself. It may be only me.

  3. Wow, back to back films we widely disagree on. I thoroughly disliked this film and had to force myself to watch it all the way to the end. Everyone was so f*cking depressed or depressing. For me this is an example of good performances not being able to overcome a very boring story. There was not one character I cared what happened to in this film.

    1. I think both of these are really honest reactions to The Hours. I just reacted differently to it. I found it not boring but engrossing completely. I'm not sure I'd watch it again any time soon, but I wouldn't object to watching it again at all.

  4. Indeed, those female roles are well-written. The Hours is a favorite of mine, I just don't get tired of it. Inspired me to read the book. Agree with Nikhat that the movie is an improvement on the novel.
    I wish more films like this were getting made. It really does delve into universal truths of feeling trapped, wanting to change, and feeling out of place in your own life. A very rich screenplay, both in what is said, and what is left to interpret. Has the courage to show the frustrations and dark sides of female characters. I think one of the messages is that we should be more compassionate towards the choices other people make. It's interesting how The Hours doesn't just borrow things from Woolf's classic Mrs Dalloway, the film actually comments on her book.

    1. I knew it had gotten some good press and I know that my brother liked it quite a bit. I knew very little about it going in, and I was engaged by it the whole time. Hell of a damn film.