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The Hours

Stephen Daldry, USA, 2002

Rating: 3.0

 

 

Posted: January 19, 2003

By Laurence Station

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours, author Michael Cunningham fashions a contrived, if interesting, structure, fusing bits of apocrypha surrounding English novelist Virginia Woolf with the plights of two more contemporary characters to address themes of feminine self-determination and independence in mid- and late-20th century America. The result, however, is an intellectually pedestrian story. Such contrivance -- drawing upon the life or work of another from which to spin one's tale -- is all well and good. After all, James Joyce used the Odyssey as a model for one of the greatest literary works ever conceived. In order to accomplish such a feat, however, the author must add more than merely surface connections between his tale and the model from which he draws. Joyce may have been linking Leopold Bloom's trek through Dublin with Ulysses' adventures returning home from Troy, but he didn't provide readers with an explicitly detailed road map. Instead, he employed allusions, symbols and a host of other inventive devices to create the necessary linkage and subtext without beating the reader over the head. The obvious, while easy to digest, simply isn't very fulfilling, nor does it provide an experience one is likely to recall after consuming it. Joyce may be difficult, but the diligent reader is rewarded with an astonishingly bold and enlightening glimpse into the inner workings of the human psyche.

The Hours offers no such insight. Instead, it draws painfully obvious parallels between Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (another difficult but incredibly rewarding work) and Cunningham's own characters. The connections are so obvious, so spelled-out, that the reader is given little else to do but follow the words to their expected conclusion, close the book and then seek out the next disposable beach read. The Hours wants to be literature, but it's nothing more than a clever idea badly fumbled by an author who should have gotten more out of his research.

Which brings us to the film version, directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) from a comparatively faithful adaptation by noted British playwright David Hare. The Hours is undoubtedly a more enjoyable and rewarding venture than the novel upon which it's based. Unfortunately, it's still hamstrung by the trickling spring from which its core story initially bubbled. The film sports a wonderful cast, great art direction and a distinct visual and musical (courtesy of Philip Glass) style for each of its three time periods, which keeps things from getting overly muddled. But as with the book, it suffers from structural limitations, a lack of character depth and a similar dearth of great profundities regarding life or death.

True to Cunningham's prose, The Hours opens with Virginia Woolf's suicide by drowning in 1941, before jumping to 1950s Los Angeles, where a pregnant Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) struggles to be the perfect suburban housewife; to raise her young son Richie (Jack Rovello) while keeping up the domestic front for World War II vet husband Dan (John C. Reilly). Oh, yeah, Laura's reading Mrs. Dalloway, as well. (Quick synopsis here, which can't possibly hope to do the multilayered intricacies of the book justice: Mrs. Dalloway is about a single day in the life of a woman who throws parties and keeps the perfect household, all while harboring a deep dissatisfaction and a suspicion that her life has no meaning at all.) Laura, too, is dissatisfied. She feels trapped by her cookie-cutter suburban environment and yearns for a more fulfilling existence.

Cut to the present day, New York City, where we meet book editor Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep). Clarissa shares Mrs. Dalloway's first name and, like Woolf's character, her story begins with her heading off to buy flowers for a party she's throwing that evening. The party is for Richard Brown (Ed Harris), a former lover and award-winning poet dying from complications related to AIDS. Richard's ex-lover, Louis (an utterly wasted Jeff Daniels), is engaged in a continual tug-of-war with Clarissa over Richard's affections. Sally (The West Wing's Allison Janney), her current lover, clearly feels shut out of the part of Clarissa's life that involves Richard. And Clarissa's daughter Julia (Claire Danes) yearns to connect emotionally with her mother. (What a coincidence! While Mrs. Dalloway didn't engage in a lesbian relationship per se, she did experiment with a girl named Sally in her youth, and she had a daughter as well. Guess who Clarissa's modeled on?)

Daldry and Hare follow Cunningham's structure to a T. No loose thread goes untied. Everything fits together seamlessly in the end (a day in the life for each of the ladies), leaving very little left for the audience to contemplate. But the film does occasionally rise above its lazy solipsism, particularly in the performances of Kidman and Stephen Dillane (as Woolf's doting, overly-concerned husband Leonard). A scene in which the couple wrestles with the question of whether to return to the hustle and bustle of London or remain in the suburbs is gripping, and marvelously staged to boot; it alone prevents The Hours from capsizing in a sea of self-importance. But aside from this singular moment of grace, the three nakedly intertwining tales lumber along. And what should be a surprise revelation near the end is telegraphed even more obviously in the film than in the book. Like the novel, The Hours skates along the surface, is handsomely mounted and buffed to an Oscar-worthy sheen. But it's all froth and no pith. If the film accomplishes anything, hopefully it will convince viewers to be less afraid of tackling Woolf's imminently worthy catalog. That alone might justify the price of admission.

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