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As Time Goes By 

*The Hours (PG-13)
Paramount/Miramax

Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours was a tour de force of introspection. Composed largely of the interior monologues of three women in three different time periods contemplating the discomforts of their lives, one of them novelist Virginia Woolf, it was as quiet as a midnight whisper.

How, then, to turn it into a cinematic piece that wouldn't put audiences to sleep?

First, hire screenwriter David Hare. His adaptation deserves accolades for taking the geometric structure of Cunningham's book and giving it stunning symmetric form onscreen, and for providing physical links that tie the three stories together. If the dialogue sounds a bit too formal, it's because Hare has chosen to honor Cunningham's work, and rightly so.

Second, assign British director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) to direct it. A theater director, Daldry understands the value of a close-up (think spotlight) and knows how to stage and frame a dramatic monologue. His talent is to showcase his actors, which brings us to the third requirement for turning The Hours into a film: hire great actors for the three principal roles.

The women of Hollywood must have been chomping at the bit to be cast in The Hours. Lucky for us, the most prominent women actors of this year just happen to be Julianne Moore, a strong Oscar contender for Far From Heaven; Meryl Streep, delivering a double whammy this Oscar season with her role in The Hours and her portrayal of Susan Orlean in Adaptation; and Nicole Kidman, fresh off her surprising triumph in last year's Moulin Rouge.

The Hours opens with Philip Glass's glistening score as we watch Woolf (Kidman) drop a heavy stone into her coat pocket before she walks into the River Ouse. We know that in 1941, Woolf committed suicide exactly this way, and that historic context casts an ominous filter over The Hours.

The film's three settings are 1923 Richmond, a suburb of London, 1951 Los Angeles and current-day West Greenwich Village, New York City. Woolf is writing her ground-breaking novel Mrs. Dalloway in her Richmond home while her loving husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) watches her vigilantly for signs of re-emerging depression. In Los Angeles, Laura Brown (Moore), somnolent and pregnant with her second child, is reading Mrs. Dalloway and planning to bake a cake for her husband (John C. Reilly) with her little boy Richie. In New York, book editor Clarissa Vaughan (Streep) is planning a party in honor of her former lover, poet Richard (Ed Harris), who is receiving a major literary award and who is dying of AIDS.

Richard's pet name for Clarissa is "Mrs. Dalloway," referring to her propensity for giving parties rather than facing the omissions of her own safe life, like the literary character. Woolf's musings over the limitations of her sheltered life are fierce and confrontational while, in her cookie-cutter kitchen, Laura Brown's paralysis and fear over her own unhappiness are barely uttered but reflected in her sad face.

"I wrestle alone in the dark," says Woolf to Leonard, explaining to him that he cannot save her from her own demons, a theme that infects all three scenarios.

There are many wonders in The Hours, not least of which are the supporting characters and performers. Miranda Richardson is a breath of fresh air as Vanessa Bell, Woolf's sister and mother to a mob of unruly children who adore and are perplexed by their weird aunt. Stephen Dillane is touching as Leonard Woolf, protective of his troubled wife but respectful of her spiritual and intellectual autonomy. John C. Reilly is effective as Laura Brown's loving husband, clueless about her unhappiness and unaware that his broad affection is not returned. (Reilly has perfected this role by now, having played it three times this year -- in The Good Girl, Chicago and The Hours.)

Of the lead actors and their roles, there is little to criticize. Moore's Brown is the toughest nut to crack, teetering on clich in her 1950s housedress. The essence of her character is her uneasiness with her little boy and with the role of wife and mother -- subtle but profound problems, quietly played. Kidman's Woolf is at once awkward, tough, brittle, tragic and funny. The actress bravely goes without makeup and dons a fake nose that hides her beauty, turning her character into a whole, living, breathing person, not Nicole Kidman playing one.

But it is Streep's performance that binds The Hours together. No other actress can reach the depths of sadness without being maudlin, the way that Streep can. Here she struggles with letting go of the past and finally comes to know the inevitable sadness of aging, as well as the possibility of moving ahead. She's twittery and nervous -- we know that she may fall but will not break. She is as close to us as our own image in the mirror.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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