Three women’s stories are beautifully interwoven in The Hours, director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare’s masterful adaptation of the1998 novel by Michael Cunningham.
In adapting Cunningham’s novel, screenwriter David Hare has accomplished a tremendous feat. He has turned a novel primarily built upon interior monologues into a riveting screenplay.
The finished film is beautiful. Ann Roth’s costumes are gorgeous and appropriate to each character and her history. The sets are built around different but related color palettes that add to the themes that connect the three women whose lives intertwine in The Hours.
A Day in Three Lives
PG-13 for mature elements, language
In one plot thread, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is writing her most acclaimed book, Mrs. Dalloway. Between the occasional moments of clarity and hard work on her greatest novel, Virginia is engaged in a tooth-and-nail struggle with all of the details of her life. She is fighting to stay sane. She has no authority with her household staff, and her sister no longer invites her to the London parties she once attended. Drawn and pale, she constantly fears and is felled by migraines.
We also spend a day in the life of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a depressed housewife in Los Angeles in 1951. She has a young child and another on the way, but little idea how to get through this day — or the many other days that make up her life. As she fumbles through the recipe for her husband’s birthday cake, her preschool-age boy tries to reassure her, saying that anyone can make a cake.
Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughan, a present-day Manhattan editor living with her partner. Her first name is the same as the character in Woolf’s book, and Clarissa’s friend Richard dubs her “Mrs. Dalloway,” so it’s obvious she shares some similarities with Woolf’s creation, Clarissa Dalloway. As in Woolf’s novel, we follow the contemporary Clarissa through her day of buying flowers and getting ready for a party she will throw for a friend.
The lives of the three women reveal themes and conflicts common to all of them, and common to Woolf’s writings — women’s roles, work, love, and sexuality among them. Only toward the end does the film reveal the connection between the women, and it turns out to be a surprising one.
1. The Writer at Work
Although she is already a famous writer, Virginia fails to assert her authority over her staff. Her cook (Linda Bassett) has little but contempt for the way her mistress spends her hours. Miranda Richardson plays Virginia’s sister Vanessa as alternately awed and frightened by Virginia’s power, both as a writer and as a madwoman. Despite her frustrations, Virginia retains some confidence in her work, increasingly certain that she is writing something important, even if it is about but one pivotal day in the life of an ordinary upper-middle-class woman.
In one scene she announces her decision that someone will die in her novel. Her husband asks why. “Someone has to die that the rest of us may value life more.” He asks her who has to die. “It’s always the poets, the visionaries,” she responds.
On a whim she decides to catch a train to London. Her husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) catches up with her on the platform and she vigorously defends her right — and the right of everyone, no matter how unbalanced — to choose the circumstances that will make her happy. For her, nothing but the “violent jolt of the capitol” will make her feel alive.
“It was London that brought you low,” Leonard says, having followed the advice of her doctors and removed her to this quiet suburb. This isolation, while it has brought Virginia some peace, makes her feel utterly cut off from the pulse of city life. When Leonard agrees that they can move back to London, he does so with the awareness that he will certainly lose his wife this time, his face fallen like that of the athlete who has accepted his utter defeat.
2. A Woman Adrift
In Laura’s story, set in 1950s Los Angeles, we see a different set of choices. Laura is adrift in her own life. She admires her friend Kitty (Toni Collette) for her normality, her ability to project confidence, and her optimism, even when she doesn’t truly believe it herself. She even feels attracted to her friend; attractions between women are among the threads that weave these narratives together.
Through Kitty, we get a glimpse of how Laura is perceived; like Laura’s son, she too mocks Laura gently for not being able to bake a cake. When she sees Laura’s copy of Mrs. Dalloway lying on the table, she says, “Oh, you are reading a book.” From of the tone of her voice we know this sets Laura well apart from other women in her milieu.
Laura and Kitty both married war veterans, and they briefly discuss their husbands. Laura doesn’t understand her husband Dan (John C. Reilly), but she has done her utmost to create a pleasing home and bear his children. She says to her best friend, “I guess they deserved it.” Kitty asks her what she means. “They deserved us, I guess,” Laura says, as if her existence represents merely a postwar prize awarded to a survivor.
Her son, Richie (Jack Rovello), expertly studies his mother. He looks like he is getting his last good look at her, as though she might not be there for long. When Richie tells her, “I love you,” he is trying to hold onto his mother, who is simultaneously relieved and oppressed by his adoring scrutiny.
After Laura throws her first failed cake in the garbage, she resolves to bake a new, better cake, explaining to her son, “We’re baking a cake to tell him how much we love him.” He reveals the straightforward logic of a child’s mind, saying, “Otherwise he won’t know we love him?”
Laura escapes her life for a couple of hours, leaving Richie with a babysitter and checking into a fancy hotel to read Mrs. Dalloway. She considers committing suicide but chooses to live, although ultimately on her own terms.
“It’s what you can bear. I chose life,” Laura says in the end.
3. Paradise Lost
At first glance Clarissa appears to be the most superficial character. She is the namesake of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway,” another apparently superficial woman. This is clearly a deliberate choice on the part of the author. We follow Clarissa through her day as she shops for flowers, calls on her best friend Richard, and prepares to throw a party, actions that parallel Mrs. Dalloway’s in Woolf’s novel.
Clarissa leads a comfortably bourgeois life in Greenwich Village with her partner Sally (Allison Janney). She seems committed to her family, her work, and her friends. She takes care of her friend Richard (Ed Harris) as he succumbs to AIDS in his squalid meatpacking-district apartment. She fears Richard’s mental decline and death, but more importantly, she fears that, having settled for a safe and comfortable life, her brilliant friend will find her life trivial. “Ah. Mrs. Dalloway, always throwing parties to cover the silence,” Richard mocks, using his pet name for her.
In the course of her day we learn that Clarissa and Richard had a summer romance years ago — and that Clarissa has never since felt passion that pure. She is unable to resign herself to losing the pinnacle of happiness that that time has come to represent to her.
Her conversations with Richard strongly echo some of the themes Virginia Woolf explores in her novels: the work of women and men, genius, ambition, sexuality, envy, and madness. Richard’s final words to Clarissa are a brilliant monologue on the reasons for being an artist, and they further echo Woolf’s work. “I wanted to write about it all, everything all mixed up,” he says, “but I failed.” He tells her that he can no longer cling to his life for her sake alone. He tells her that he loved her. “I don’t think two people could be happier together,” he says, as Virginia wrote to her husband Leonard in her own suicide note.
All Together Now
In The Hours, we see that each woman has clung to her own inner truth. Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa all cast aside society’s judgments to fulfill their own ideals — albeit sometimes with terrible consequences for the people closest to them. Each of the women has created something of beauty, be it deep love, literature, a home, a child, or simply her own life. Their stories remind us to seize our own moments and live according to our own truths. This film reminds us that, at the end of the day, we cannot dismiss any one woman as merely trivial or superficial.