Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and her sister Vanessa were at the center of the Bloomsbury Group, artists and writers in London during the early 20th century who were the intellectual and artistic leaders of their generation. Woolf, in pre-feminist days, was deeply concerned with the rights of women. She was a victim of incest and had homosexual leanings, though mostly she seems to have been asexual. She was romantically involved with Vita Sackville-West, a poet and novelist, but opted to remain within her successful, if childless and passionless, marriage to Leonard Woolf. A long-term depressive, she committed suicide by drowning.
Woolf is considered to have been an important innovator in her writing. Like her contemporary, James Joyce, she was most interested in the inner journey, exploring the psychological depths of her characters through techniques of stream of consciousness and the interior monologue. Her novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), is in just such a style, relating the events in one day of Mrs. Dalloway’s life–a life of middle-class comfort undercut by emotional distress; Mrs. Dalloway is haunted by her sense of a life misspent, of opportunities missed.
Michael Cunningham, in his novel, The Hours, and Stephen Daldry, in his evocative film based on Cunningham’s novel, interweave three stories–that of Woolf herself (Nicole Kidman) as she was writing Mrs. Dalloway; that of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) a 1950’s Los Angeles housewife and mother who is reading the novel; and that of Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), an editor living in New York who, like Clarissa Dalloway in the novel, is preparing a party. Each story reflects and reverberates on the others in a complex interplay of factual and emotional contrasts and parallels.
Woolf, living in the country with Leonard (Stephen Dillane), is presented as introspective, depressive, and difficult for her husband, whose patience with her and fears for her safety seem to have exactly the opposite effects of what he intends. Woolf is distanced from others, but her isolation is subtly expressed in the film, without articulation of the specifics. When her sister is about to part after a visit from London, Woolf uncharacteristically holds her and kisses her strongly on the lips; its as if the kiss were an attempt to bind them together, to reconnect them as Woolf feels her connections slipping away.
Laura Brown, too, is depressed, suicidal, disturbed by an unarticulated dissatisfaction with the status quo of her comfortable suburban life. Her friend Kitty (Toni Collette), who has been unable to have children, discloses that a growth has been discovered on her uterus. Laura, who has an adoring son and is pregnant, in a moment of uncharacteristic spontaneity, plants a kiss on Kitty’s lips. It’s an expression of caring and an assertion of connection, as well as an outburst of repressed and confused sexuality.
Clarissa Vaughn has had a freedom of choice not available to the two antecedents. When younger, she had an affair with Richard (Ed Harris), a now successful writer, who is still her close friend and for whom she is a caretaker, as he is afflicted with AIDS. She is in a long term relationship with a woman (Allison Janney) and she also has a daughter (Claire Danes). As she prepares a party in Richard’s honor, she, like Mrs. Dalloway, reaches a crisis of understanding in her own life–"a woman’s whole life in a single day," as Woolf puts it.
Although it certainly deals with feminism and lesbianism, The Hours is no political screed. In its consideration of broader themes of life and death, the movie transcends the particularities of political and sexual issues. The issues here are those of how one chooses to live a life or not to live it, of how people connect to each other or don’t, of the ubiquitous presence in our lives of our own mortality, of the ultimate disconnection from others that is their death or ours. Clarissa says to Richard, "That is what people do; they stay alive for each other."
To single out any one performance in The Hours would be to slight the others; under Daldry’s superb direction, there is not a wrong note. While there has been much comment on the nose prosthesis used to make Kidman look very much like Woolf, her performance is not one iota dependent on such superficialities. She climbs into the psychological condition of this unhappy woman and expresses it in body language, in her manner of speech (and a hoarse, smoky voice), in the changing, fleeting emotions that flicker across her face. Moore bites her lip and casts her eyes down, telling more about Laura than any line of dialogue could. Streep deals with the mood swings of Clarissa’s day, with the shiftings in her complicated relationships, and with her own need to rebalance, in a performance of clarity and emotional transparency; it comes from the soul. All of the supporting roles are finely cast and expertly rendered.
The score by Philip Glass is in his minimalist style, with an emotional resonance appropriate to the material. Unfortunately, it is played at such high volume during much of the film as to be intrusive. Daldry should have realized that he had achieved the emotional impact in his narrative and performances; there is no need to cue the audience to what they should be feeling by assaulting the ears with over-amplified music.
For all the pervasive tone of sadness in The Hours, it is an uplifting film. Daldry keeps the sentiment dry and avoids cliches. The ultimate acceptance is clear: "To look life in the face…to know it…to love it for what it is–then to put it away."