The Hours Review
Although not without its merits, the considerable praise heaped upon Stephen Daldry’s cinematic debut, ‘Billy Elliot’, was unwarranted. A heart-warming story to be sure, but the film’s overwhelming critical and commercial acclaim was not in proportion to its quality. In retrospect, however, ‘our Billy’ is owed a debt of gratitude, because without the film’s success it is unlikely that Daldry would have been able to make ‘The Hours’, a leading Oscar contender and one of the best films of the year.
Adapted from Michael Cunningham’s book of the same name, ‘The Hours’ cuts between a day in the life of a trio of women from different decades of the twentieth century, but who share two distinct connections. The first connection is to the book, ‘Mrs Dalloway’. Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf, the famous writer of said book, who lives with her husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) in the quiet of 1920s Surrey in an effort to cure her of her various maladies. Julianne Moore is Laura Brown a deeply unhappy 1950s American wife and mother who reads ‘Mrs Dalloway’ on the day she decides to attempt suicide. Meryl Streep plays Clarisaa Vaughn, a modern-day Mrs Dalloway who throws soirees in order to hide her true feelings and the pain of her love for a gay man dying of AIDS. The second connection between the three women is the fact that they all trying to make sense of the life of sadness and depression they find themselves living, a life that neither they nor those around them can fully understand or come to terms with.
Although the synopsis of ‘The Hours’ is not particularly enticing, Daldry has been able to avoid making a film about depression that is within itself depressing, by having the opportunity to draw from quality throughout the length and breadth of his movie. And this is where we have the success of ‘Billy Elliot’ to thank, for without it Daldry would not have had the clout to put together what is essentially an ‘A Team’ of literary adaptation. The film’s score, several haunting, swirling, almost oppressive pieces of classical music has been written by the celebrated composer Phillip Glass; the script is an adaptation of Cunningham’s book by the (again celebrated) playwright David Hare; and most impressive of all, an absolutely stellar cast has been brought together which features, along with the mouth-watering triumvirate of Kidman, Moore and Streep, names as Stephen Dillane, John C. Riley, Toni Collete, and Ed Harris.
This is not to say that ‘The Hours’ is not without its faults. The film suffers from the fact that the narrative strand which follows the modern Mrs Dalloway does not really stand up to comparison with the other two intertwining stories. As well as slightly mannered and overstated performances from Streep and Harris, this third section is hindered in its intensity by the fact that the unhappiness they express comes from a more knowing, more obvious, more ego-dominated position than that experienced by Virginia Woolf or Laura Brown and those around them. Although Clarissa Vaughn or those around her are by no means unsympathetic, her experience appears less sympathetic than that of Woolf and Brown, mainly because she is living in a society which has developed a culture of self-interpretation and analysis and which has enabled her to recognise her problems.
Daldry might not be a strong enough cinematic director to stop ‘The Hours’ from becoming, at times, a slightly frustrating and even trivial affair. However, he is undoubtedly a fine actor’s director, and when he hits his purple patches, drawing on the performances of Moore and Kidman, he is able to elicit scenes of an almost unbearable emotional intensity.
Moore is outstanding, and her roles in ‘The Hours’ and ‘Far from Heaven’ prove that she is her generation’s finest actress. Her performance perfectly mirrors the feelings of a suffocating emptiness brought on by entrapment in a loveless marriage, made worse by the love of a son and the faithfulness of a husband. Moore’s impassive facial expressions, her listless body movement, the flat, level tone of her voice all go to encapsulate her inability to embrace the life that society has dictated she live. Superb art direction and camera movement help to create a house and neighbourhood that lacks any real sense of warmth and vibrancy, and places the audience squarely in the atmosphere of desolation and loneliness that overpowers Moore and that has a deep and lasting effect on her son. Moore is ably accompanied by the ever-dependable John C. Riley as the dutiful husband’s who’s ignorant love is perversely destroying his marriage, and Toni Collete makes more of an impact than her screen-time should by rights allow, ‘glamming’ it up as a housewife who is just as sad as Moore, and who’s coping mechanisms are almost as depressing as her depression itself.
Yet the real stand-out elements of ‘The Hours’ are those occupied by Nicole Kidman and Stephen Dillane in a perfectly-rendered 1920’s upper class literary atmosphere. Forget the patronising crap that is being said about Kidman being brave for playing a less than stunning woman (as if being attractive is her only asset). She puts in a mesmerising performance as a woman who is equally fascinated and terrified by the prospect of life and death, a combination which has the force to cause her to lose grasp of her own sanity and which leads, irrevocably, to death. Kidman’s Woolf is a woman who has all but a tenuous grip on life and her position within it, and who is misunderstood by all around her: the practical, ill-tempered servants who look down on her ‘pointless’ creativity, her family-oriented sister (Miranda Richardson) content with her domestic life and vaguely ashamed of her mentally-ill sister, and her long suffering but doting husband Leonard.
It is the pairing of Nicole Kidman and Stephen Dillane that is the cornerstone of ‘The Hours’. Their acting is imbued with emotional intensity that the rest of the film has to try and match. They all-too-painfully portray a marriage that has a basis in love but which finds itself overpowered by thoughts and feelings over which it has no real control. Kidman is ably matched, if not surpassed, by a note-perfect performance from Dillane as the husband who desperately wants to help his wife conquer the all-encompassing depression that dictates her life, but who knows, deep down, that his efforts are ultimately futile. Leonard’s confrontation with Virginia at Richmond train station after she tries to leave for London (the city which helped make her ill in the first place); his frustration, anger and overwhelming sadness over his inability to make his wife better, coupled with the fact that as an Englishman living the 1920s he has been brought up never to show his emotions in public, make for some of the most powerful, heart-breaking scenes committed to celluloid over the past decade. To put it bluntly, the fact that Dillane has not been nominated for best supporting actor in this year’s Oscars makes the category inconsequential.
‘The Hours’ will not be too everyone’s tastes. It is by no means driven by narrative, and there are stretches, particularly in the modern period, where a lack of cohesion in the story and a failure to entice the audience’s interests causes the movie to drag. It is also a shame that Daldry felt he had to finish his film with a ‘feel-good’ conclusion that is at odds with a generally irresolute tone. As such, ‘The Hours’ is not a magnificent film. Yet it undoubtedly displays elements of magnificence and as such is a film that deserves to be seen.
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