The Hours (2002)

D: Stephen Daldry
S: Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore

Delicately realised adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel from screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) performed by a stunning cast. The film intercuts between the interrelated stories of three generations of women struggling with self-definition in three different social worlds. In the most recent setting, book editor Meryl Streep (Adaptation) battles with her own expectations as she struggles to hold a party for her closest male friend, a poet dying of AIDS (Ed Harris) with whom she briefly entertained a romantic relationship a long time before. Meanwhile in the 1950s, seemingly dutiful housewife Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven) finds the conformity of her life with husband John C. Reilly (Chicago) and young son Jack Rovello stifling and tries to escape it. Finally, in the most distant past, the writer Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) grapples with her novel Mrs. Dalloway while her mental stability is questioned by those who love her including her husband and publisher Leonard (Stephen Dillane), and her sister Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson).

The themes of homosexuality, self-expression, and the expectations of self and other unite the three stories, as does the novel Mrs. Dalloway (no accident there). Fiercely literary in many respects, certainly demanding of an intellectual as well as emotional response, the film is a rewarding one, though it is likely to polarise opinion as to the merits of any and all of it. It is certainly a controlled film in spite of the juggling of storylines. This is largely because of its thematic coherency. Though there are a multiplicity of specific plot and character links between the three stories, they ultimately all revolve around the same few issues. These are seen through the filters of different historical and social circumstances which evolve towards the contemporary.

In the modern-day story, Streep's character seems to have freedoms and opportunities which neither of her predecessors had, yet she feels as bound by the expectations of others and by internal self-doubt as any of them. She feels compelled to be in control, yet feels constantly on the edge. Moore meanwhile feels forced into a role she feels unequipped to deal with and struggles with desires which constantly threaten to break through the familiar veneer of 1950s wholesomeness. Kidman then, as Woolf, stands poised to shatter the boundaries of her time with a literary career which would influence subsequent generations, yet her battle is with a weight of social and personal convention far greater than either of the other women.

All three of these women go through a process of realisation which takes them through extended periods of self-doubt, all three explore their sexuality through physical relationships with other women as well as men, all three are searching for a way to cope with the various challenges life has thrown them. In all three stories, some form of 'escape' from the pressures of the 'ordinary' is found, and although it is very different in each case, there is a sense of the 'progress' of feminism, though not because of external conditions.

The options available to these women seem to increase with time, yet their ability to affect change seems to decrease. Through her writing, Woolf was able to influence the direction of women's lives for generations. The struggle for women's rights in the 1950s would directly influence the political changes of the 1960s and 70s. In the modern story, Streep seems to have all the trappings of freedom and personal power which these historical stories would seem to have enabled. Yet the world of the present seems so much smaller than this character's opportunities to affect change seem to be almost entirely 'merely' on the personal level.

Yet in the case of Streep's character, it is her acceptance of her emotions, her connection with the opportunities represented by sincere self-examination, which makes her world a hopeful one where those of her predecessors' were not. The resolution for Moore and Kidman is more downbeat in spite of the larger meaning their lives might have for those who follow, and though all three women confront mortality in one form or another (the theme of suicide and self-destruction is also concurrent), only for Streep is the confrontation external. The contours of change are subtle indeed, and the film is careful to allow just enough development and difference between the three story strands to prevent the audience from losing touch with the central thread.

None of this structural and thematic subtlety would matter if it weren't for the superbly tuned performances of the entire cast. Streep, Moore, and Kidman (The Others) are excellent, with Kidman a particular standout largely because of a prosthetic nose which makes Nicole Kidman the star disappear and Virginia Woolf the character emerge. Though the nose is actually something of a distraction on one level, it provides Kidman with an opportunity to make Woolf a distinctive physical and vocal presence. With a supporting cast including Reilly, Harris (Enemy at the Gates), Jeff Daniels, Clare Danes (Romeo + Juliet), Allison Janney, Richardson, Dillane, and Toni Colette (The Sixth Sense), it really couldn't go wrong, not when all of them seem to have been so completely in synch with Daldry's vision.

The tone of the film is just the right side of arty. It is superbly crafted and aesthetically challenging enough to accomplish precisely what it sets out to without leaving very much outside of its grasp. Handled with less directorial skill, it would have descended into a pretentious murk. Hare's script, though peppered with literary reference, ultimately enables these actors to surpass themselves in precision of self-expression, and Daldry never allows them to become bogged down in the dialogue with the aid of Peter Boyle's editing and Seamus McGarvey's subtle cinematography. Philip Glass' score also helps to hold the narrative threads together as it runs through all of them with the same hypnotic repetition. The fact that it uses the main theme from The Thin Blue Line is strange, but will probably prove less of a distraction to those unfamiliar with it. How they respond to Glass in general is another question.

The Hours is not a crowd-pleaser, but those who do find a place in their hearts for it will probably love it beyond all reason. Such a reaction is probably as inappropriate as dismissing it out of hand, but is equally inevitable. It is certainly worth seeing, though in spite of its pleasing complexity and genuine subtlety, this is an experience which you may not care to repeat.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.