When you buy a film starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, you create a certain expectation of what you are about to watch. I deliberately did not read much about the film before watching it: I have a passion for coming to things with the least amount of foreknowledge possible, so that I can experience all of it without preconceptions, just like film and television used to be: a completely fresh experience.
So I knew only vaguely what The Hours was about, that the three stars played women in different time periods, and that Nicole Kidman played the novellist Virgina Woolf but that Streep and Moore played fictional characters. There’s a conventional approach to such a film that the subject matter dictates. The screenplay will flit, sometimes seemingly capriciously, between the three characters, that the events that affect them will each be individual but that there will be parallels and reflections throughout, experiences shared in differing forms. And that was what The Hours delivered.
The acting was of the highest quality, as you might expect. I am constitutionally incapable of mentioning Nicole Kidman without a comment as to her prettiness, but there was none of that in this film, and all the better for it: indeed, there were times, and many of them, that I stopped noticing that Mrs Woolf was being portrayed by her and was watching Virginia Woolf, the novellist, the disturbed woman who, after previous attempts, killed herself by weighing down the pockets of her long, straight, flat dress with bricks and walking into the middle of a river.
That’s where the film begins and ends, in 1941. In a way, it creates a false expectation that the rest of the story refutes. In between, the film is firmly anchored to its respective time periods – 1925 for Kidman, 1951 for Moore as Californian housewife Laura Brown, and 2001 for Streep as editor Clarissa Vaughan in New York – and confines each to the events of a single day.
The key to the film is Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway, which I have not read, nor any of her work. Perhaps I would have enjoyed the film more if I knew the book, because it is the theme to each story and the template for the film’s structure in staying within single days. Woolf begins to write it, the unhappy Laura, five months pregnant with her second child, is reading it, Clarissa is a modern-day Mrs Dalloway, and is addressed as such several timews by her friend and former lover, poet Richard Brown, dying of AIDS and about to be honoured by a celebrated Award: Clarissa is organising a party.
(A brief sidestep to the Wikipedia entry on the novel indicates just how much the film has taken from it, and how it is spread around among the three characters).
The problem with the film is pace. A film like this is never going to be fast-moving, full of action and contain melodramatic elements: these would be contradictory to its nature. But at the same time, for most of its first hour, and again in its later stages, The Hours is conspicuously slow, self-consciously slow, and the soundtrack, composed by Philip Glass, is obtrusive and too loud. The acting is excellent, but there are many scenes where it is too noticeable: the camera will sit on characters’ faces whilst emotions wrestle with each other to decide which will speak the delayed dialogue. This is particularly so for Streep and Moore, and especially in the one scene they share. They are both brilliant but their acting calls attention to itself and breaks the hold the film has on you, if it has one at all.
Kidman, playing an Englishwoman in the Twenties, and a lady accustomed to good society, is much less conspicuous. Her role calls for her to be withdrawn, almost passive, her difficulties subsumed to a large extent into her ‘confinement’ in Richmond, a quiet town, thought to be ideal for giving her time, space and silence, avoid disturbance. But when she does erupt, on the railway station, in an argument with her devoted husband, Leonard, the scene is the highlight of the film. The stilted, literary dialogue feels altogether real and natural, the intensity, and the simple depth of Leonard’s love and fear for his wife is awesome.
Only one other scene matches the power of this. I’ll come to that momentarily, but let me speak for a moment of Laura, the housewife seemingly living the dream of 1951, a loving husband who’s devoted and a good provider, an All-American kid son (what an unbelievable performance by Jack Rovello, aged about 4), another on the way. But Laura is deeply unhappy, so much so that, after baking a beautiful cake for her oblivious husband’s birthday, she leaves her son – who gets called all sorts of names, from Bug through to little Richie, but who only once is addressed as Richard – with a childminder whilst she rents a hotel room with the intent of overdosing, but cannot do it. Little Richie is deeply affected by his fear that his mother will not return, even after she does.
You may remember that I mentioned Clarissa’s friend and ex-lover, Richard Brown, poet, with whom she is still in love? The film keeps the connection under its hat for a very long time but I twigged it the moment Riuchie was named Richard, about twenty-five minutes before the film tips its hand. It’s Richard who gets the film’s suicide, throwing himself from a window, which is the catalyst for Clarissa’s meeting with Laura, in heavy old-age make-up, revealing that after her daughter was born, she left her family, abandoning.
It’s this scene, where Richard’s intentions are plain from the outset, that is the only other dominant scene in the film.
There are other parallels between the characters’ lives, such as a hint of bi-sexuality, and other allusions, and there is a phenomenally strong supporting cast which includes Toni Collette, Miranda Richardson, Alison Janney, Claire Danes, Stephen Dillane and Ed Harris, but whilst the film is full of complexities, it is nevertheless very slow, determinedly slow, and it sets out to deter your investment in it over the first hour. It’s title is the last two words of the screenplay and is, of course, the working title for Mrs Dalloway.