It’s been said that an ounce of pretension is worth a pound of manure, and while that’s certainly true, and while it’s also true that Stephen Daldry’s The Hours has a lot more than an ounce of pretension to it, this is that rare instance where a film justifies, and warrants, its pompous airs.
This may not be immediately apparent during the film’s early scenes, what with the oh-so-clever intercutting of three stories and the rush of Philip Glass music. If anything, The Hours is initially apt to seem overbearing and self-consciously arty … and it only gets more so. David Hare’s screenplay (based on the award-winning book by Michael Cunningham) is almost off-putting in its sheer literary-mindedness during the movie’s opening scenes. The first encounter between Clarissa (Meryl Streep) and Richard (Ed Harris) just brims with the kind of ultra-intellectual prose that works on the printed page, but seems forced and phony when you actually hear it coming out of someone’s mouth.
Then something quite unexpected happens: Everything starts coming together and pulling you in emotionally, and you realize that Daldry and Hare aren’t so much making a movie as they’re composing a magnificent symphony of sight and sound and feeling. And once this realization kicks in (and once you get past the lady two rows back finally recognizing Nicole Kidman behind her Virginia Woolfian proboscis), you realize as well that the approach is perfect, and that nothing else would have suited the material.
The Hours is one of the richest films to come along in ages, and had I been able to see it in 2002, it would have figured as either my top film of the year or, at the very least, my second-place finisher. It is an amazingly tight work, exploring its complex, interwoven stories and themes in just under two hours — making it all the more remarkable, and a valuable lesson to filmmakers who think that extra length is a sign of Importance. The Hours is at once a heavily textured, remarkably dense work and a model of simplicity (the story lines are actually deceptively straightforward); this is filmmaking at its best. Yes, the film follows three narratives in three different time periods, but in the end, it’s really following the same story — or variations on it.
The film opens in 1941 England with Virginia Woolf (Kidman’s performance ought to snag her the Oscar she deserved last year) realizing she can’t face another bout of mental illness, and then committing suicide. The Hours then begins showing how Woolf’s life has been inexorably leading to this moment for years, with the film also veering into the lives of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore in a performance fully the equal of Kidman’s) in 1951 and Clarissa Vaughan (Streep) in 2001.
All of the narratives — indeed, all of the women — are tied together by Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Woolf is writing the book; Laura is reading it; and Clarissa is — more or less — living it, starting her part of the film by echoing the novel’s opening line. The book depicts events from one day — a day in which Mrs. Dalloway is making preparations for a party. Most of the film (the 1941 framing device to one side) also takes place in one day, and all three women are preparing for a party. And all of them are trying in vain to preserve a semblance of normalcy in situations that are anything but.
Woolf aims to both overcome her mental state and to deal with her fears about her own sexuality. Laura is attempting to cope with preparations for her the birthday of her good and loving husband (the seemingly ubiquitous John C. Reilly), even as she briefly gives in to her sexual dysphoria and plans her own suicide, while her strange and seemingly precognitive young son (Jack Rovello) looks on accusingly. Clarissa is putting the best possible face she can on preparations for a party in honor of the literary award being presented to her ex-lover, Richard (Harris), who is dying of AIDS — and all the while, Clarissa tries not to recognize that, despite the fact that Richard is gay and she is, too, he is the great love of her life. All three women are repressing something about their sexualities — and all three are unraveling and putting themselves back together while pretending to the world that everything is just fine.
This could have been an unwieldy concept in lesser hands; here, it’s an unqualified success, however emotionally draining. By the end of the film, the viewer has — like the characters — been through an emotional wringer.
The Hours is a film of great power often done in small touches, such as a beautiful sequence involving a funeral for a bird (which effectively borrows its look and feel from a similar sequence in Ken Russell’s Mahler). Blessedly, this dramatic film is also done with a rich sense of humor, part of which lies in the characters’ wry observations, though it’s also present in the frequently playful manner in which The Hours constantly thwarts the expectations it has deliberately foisted on the viewer. I won’t spoil the cleverest — and most shattering — of these, though I will say it’s one of the most rewarding plot twists I’ve ever encountered. This very probably is the best film of 2002 — just be glad that it’s gotten to us early in 2003!