In England of 1923, Virginia Woolf (Kidman) is a struggling writer. Struggling with her sanity, the mental illness that is plaguing her, and the frustrations of being in domestic confinement because of her illness. Writing keeps her alive, and in this particular day she is writing her book Mrs. Dalloway. In Los Angeles of 1951, Laura Brown (Moore) is a homemaker to a wonderful husband, a son, and another child on the way. Despite all of these blessings, she is unhappy. The reasons for her unhappiness are not clear but the screenplay suggests that she feels trapped in a life of domesticity and wants out. Her only escape is Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. In New York City of 2001, life imitates art in Clarissa Vaughn (Streep). The similarities between her and Mrs. Dalloway are uncanny. Both of them share the same first name and have a lover named Richard; in Clarissa’s case he is an ex-lover suffering from AIDS, while Mrs. Dalloway married him. Both Clarissa’s are preparing a dinner party that includes bouquets of beautiful flowers. Both have a friend name Sally, but Clarissa is more than just a best friend with Sally.
Parallelism is the theme in the cinematography. Every change in scene is done to reflect the similarities in the characters’ habitual behaviors through the times: use of flowers, characters’ sleeping and waking up, and female-female lip-locks. While these vivid imageries showcases Stephen Daldry’s superb directing, they also establish the interconnections, albeit depressing, between the leading female characters. Some of them include the parallels between the Virginia and Richard, Richard and Laura’s son Richie, Clarissa and Laura’s respective relationships with their best friends. At the same time, Cunningham presents a trio of portraits painting the personal afflictions of three women. The bad thing about this is that affliction is always unpleasant, especially when it happens to women. On the other hand, the good thing about it is witnessing three powerful performances by three of the greatest actresses alive: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman.
Laura’s unhappiness in her domestic entrapment are visualized but never verbalized. We are led to believe, by her display of emotions – mostly weeping – and the role of women in the family during that period of time, that it must be the most obvious reason. Julianne Moore deserves the Oscar for this difficult role, if not for the other difficult role in Far From Heaven. She conveys Laura’s unhappiness and the cause(s) of it with absolute grace, using only her face and her eyes as the means of expression.
Clarissa’s emotional outburst is more spontaneous. From her dialogue, it is suggested that Richard, whom she has been dutifully caring for quite a long time, is the spark of her unhappiness. Like Laura, she feels trapped in a series of duties she has to perform at her own expense. Not as emotionally stricken as Laura, Clarissa is defined with elegance and strength by Meryl Streep. Her diction and style is flawless to the point that she is able to play up to Clarrisa’s Mrs. Dalloway moniker and still maintain Clarissa’s personality at the same time.
The Virginia Woolf story should not be bizarre if you are familiar with her biography. A substantial amount of screen time is spent on reiterating and reinforcing the two important things of her life: her suffering and her writing. Her ill health is established at her sister’s visit, during which Nicole Kidman plays out Virginia’s deep-rooted depression that includes a fascination with the macabre for a story idea. Of all the female-female lip-locks, Virginia smooching her sister is the most disturbing; it is not completely clear what drove her to do it. There may be something about Kidman’s Virginia Woolf to be afraid of. She is on a downward spiral of depression and mental instability. Relocating to another city, which Virginia Woolf claimed would provide relief from her domestic confines, did not help in the long run as she ultimately took her own life in 1941 – the opening and closing scene of the entire story. For the most part, Nicole Kidman is sullen and her eyes almost devoid of any life. Yet she speaks volumes of emotions even though her character does not.
Cunningham's Pulitzer winner can benefit from further delving onscreen. Considering that this film is going to be a strong Oscar contender, it wouldn't hurt to lengthen the time to facilitate that. There is more beneath the suffering sirens than what David Hare's screenplay is showing. Although he narrates three character studies side-by-side pretty well, it leaves a sense of wanting to know more about the characters to better relate to their plights. When did they start feeling this way? What is it about their circle of friends and family that made or contributed to them feeling this way? How have they been coping with it? In Laura's case, how did she deal with the ramifications of liberating herself from a deathly homemaker life? Her explanation towards the end of the film offers no insight to the impact that her self-salvation has made upon her or the extend of the damage it caused to her husband and kids.
Philip Glass’s score is extraordinary melodious. It does not sing any unforgettable theme but its voice is so emotional that it can keep you fixated on the three women to find out what is going on with them. While it creates a mood of tranquility with a sense of discomfort to support Virginia Woolf’s mental and physiological state, it grows to be spiritedly tensed and vigorous to elevate Laura’s internal cries for help and escape. His music is at its peak for most of Laura’s dilemma, from the outpouring of her well-up emotions to the measures she takes in a desperate attempt to escape her domestic life.
The Hours is not everyone’s cup of tea. It is depressing and sad. The abject portrayal of women in affliction may be difficult for some to appreciate. Serious film buffs, however, will enjoy this women-empowering story (though the depiction of the women makes it appear to be the opposite). Not just for the painful yet compelling sad story, Glass’ beautiful score or Daldry’s remarkable direction. But because of the tri-star performances of Streep, Moore and Kidman. This is their finest Hours.
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