Movie Review #857: Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Me, after watching ‘The Hours’.
By Alexander Diminiano
|Rated PG-13 (contains mature themes, disturbing content, profanity)|
The first sound we hear in “The Hours” is the intense, brooding sound of rushing water. What better way could there have been for introducing “The Hours” before even an inkling of its story could do so? The film is nervous and even a bit frantic in its bleak retelling of Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway through the parallel lives of three women.
One of the three women is Virginia Woolf herself, portrayed by Nicole Kidman. She is living outside London in the countryside of Richmond, England, in 1923. This third of the story provides the audience more familiarity with the novel Mrs Dalloway, its tale, and the tempestuous soul that crafted it. (I wasn’t familiar with the novel, but I’m a bit intrigued to read it now.)
Woolf, a forty-year-old woman, has attempted suicide twice at this point in her life, and she is struggling manically to write her book in the quiet atmosphere of the town. She wishes to move back into London, where the chaos might welcome her home. We learn this in perhaps the movie’s most rattling moment, a discussion between Virginia and her husband Leonard at a train station. Unfortunately, that one scene offers more character development for Woolf than any of the rest of the script. “The Hours” seems to rely on its actresses to establish their personalities themselves, as David Hare’s screenplay is more concerned with the goings-on in its characters’ lives.
Kidman, nevertheless, delivers the character chillingly. Her depiction of Virginia Woolf is a bona fide representation of the author’s rickety, hellish personality. It’s difficult not to hate her character. Every direction her eyes move is a snide glare, not at another person, but at the humanity that surrounds and sickens her. Kidman delivers her dialogue in a cringe-inducing, serpentine fashion. I shivered watching her speak. If I were to make just one comment about “The Hours”, it would be without a doubt about Kidman’s performance. She earned the Best Actress Oscar for this role, and it was completely deserved.
This tale is paralleled with the story of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), an L.A. housewife whose chronicle is set in 1951. She has a son and is five months pregnant with her second child. It’s her husband’s birthday, but she doesn’t give a damn about marriage, nor does she place much importance on motherhood. She would rather escape these factors of her increasingly sullen days, by reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. And seemingly, the story of that book is all that matters to her. More than the story of her life, and more than the story of her family’s lives.
The third parallel is the defining and most important vignette in “The Hours”. Like the other two, this one benefits from its distinguishing costume design, set decoration, and cinematography. Interwoven with the other two stories, this section of the film elaborates on a day in the lie of Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), an editor in New York City. The year is 2001, and Clarissa is an embodiment of the character Virginia Woolf had created nearly eight decades before. Clarissa is attempting, but failing, to convince her friend Richard (Ed Harris) to attend a party she’s been planning. When she’s not trying to convince him, she’s preparing obsessively and chaotically for the party.
Clarissa wants to celebrate Richard’s work as a poet and a novelist. His recent novel strikes many readers as confusing, except for her. She finds it to be masterfully written. But Richard has given up hope on staying alive. He has contracted AIDS within the last few years, during which Clarissa has been consistently visiting and taking care of him. Richard’s doctors have assured him that he will be able to live a much longer life, but he isn’t particularly willing to. Richard feels more and more confident that he remains alive only because Clarissa can’t bear to imagine life without him.
I’ve noted Kidman’s performance as Virginia Woolf, and while it is definitely the film’s greatest display, the performances of Moore and Meryl also punctuate the film’s fragile atmosphere. It’s a movie that couldn’t have worked without such strong performances, and although it still falters from its weak character development, we’re often led to ignore that downfall. I’ll once more state that this tense drama doesn’t have the most usual story: it concerns three hectic lives as they change madly thanks to one book. The film thrives on the credibility it presents in its story. There’s a bit much theatricality here, with overly, needlessly poetic dialogue poking its head in and out of David Hare’s screenplay, an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. That aside, “The Hours” is wholly convincing. It excels beyond the dubious nature of its story, and despite its bitter, cold mood, I couldn’t stop watching.