New York, 2001. 50 year old lesbian editor Clarissa Vaughan is preparing a reception for her ex-lover Richard, a respected but unsuccessful poet who’s dying of AIDS.
In the London suburbs, 1923. Virginia Woolf is writing a new novel with some difficulty, torn as she is between her fear of falling ill again and her desire to return to the lively heart of the city.
Los Angeles, 1949. Housewife Laura Brown hides being a happy façade, but inside she feels awfully inadequate towards her husband, her son and her unborn daughter, finding peace only in reading.
When I read Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel a couple of months ago, I couldn’t understand how they’d turn it into a movie. It’s a brilliant book, with three amazing characters and a heartbreaking conclusion, but the way they relate is through literature, most precisely through “Mrs. Dalloway” which Woolf is writing, Brown is reading and Vaughan is living. Beyond that, nothing happens, which is exactly the point. Cunningham’s novel is about life at its most banal, which can be depressing or overwhelmingly beautiful. Life’s a bitch, but sometimes you get an hour where everything is just right. Are these hours worth the hassle, or should you take your own life and be done with it?
“The Hours” does deal with hefty themes like suicide and homosexuality, but they’re not driven by plot. For the most part the only actions taken are Clarissa buying flowers, Laura making a cake and Virginia writing a few pages. Where it becomes busy and overwhelming is in these women’s heads and hearts. They’re all going through decisive hours, contemplating the purpose of their lives. So it’s one story, really, and director Stephen Daldry manages to always make it feel cohesive, much more than in last year’s similarly themed/constructed “Personal Velocity”. Like that collection of three portraits of women, “The Hours” is very wordy and literary, but it’s equally cinematic. Through masterful editing and a grandiose, evocative score by Philip Glass, Daldry keeps the picture from unraveling along with its characters.
Another thing that’s consistent is the quality of the acting. The fact that Meryl Streep brings nuance and conviction to every moment as Clarissa isn’t surprising, but it’s a great lead performance nonetheless. Julianne Moore is wrenchingly moving as Laura Brown, more so than as another ‘50s housewife in Far from Heaven because here the polish is off and Moore’s character is exposed in all her vulnerability. Nicole Kidman disappears into Virginia Woolf, and it’s not just about the fake nose that makes her unrecognisable. She conveys perfectly that thin line between insanity and genius, the way a writer’s ability to “see” and understand the world can be a curse. This also comes through Ed Harris’ Richard, a visionary who probably wishes for obliviousness. Harris is devastating as this man whose spirit is crumbling along with his seropositive body and though he appears only in two scenes, his character casts a shadow across the whole film, especially when you realise the nature of his relation with one of the women. Also making the best of smallish parts are John C. Reilly as Laura’s husband, Claire Danes as Clarissa’s daughter and Jeff Daniels as an old flame of Richard.
There are little things that don’t work so well in “The Hours”, like the scenes with Woolf’s husband and the one with her sister, or that final scene between Clarissa and an old woman that’s a bit too talky and spells out a questionable feminist message that was implied more subtly in the novel, but this barely detracts from the emotional power and artistic prowess of the film. After being disappointed by nearly all the year-end’s rear-end “prestige” flicks (“Chicago”, “The Pianist”, “About Schmidt”, “Gangs of New York”…), at last there’s an Oscar contender I can heartily get behind.