"The Hours" (Paramount), 114 minutes, PG-13
Directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by David Hare, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham
Virginia Woolf: Nicole Kidman
Laura Brown: Julianne Moore
Clarissa Vaughan: Meryl Streep
Richard: Ed Harris
Among the five films nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Pianist" and "The Hours" are the serious favorites among the literate and the literati.
"The Hours" is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, adapted by the distinguished British playwright David Hare, and directed by Stephen Daldry. Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Ed Harris head the luminous cast; the original score is by yet another Pulitzer Prize winner, Philip Glass. The film received nine Oscar nominations and has already won the Golden Globe for best drama and best film from the National Board of Review.
"The Hours" opens and closes in 1941 with the suicide drowning of English novelist Virginia Woolf. It then proceeds to tell three stories; each one taking place on a single day many years and cities apart. In the first, set in a London suburb in the early 1920s, a younger Virginia Woolf (Kidman) struggles to begin a new novel as she fights to maintain her sanity; in the second, set in California in the 1951, Laura Brown (Moore), a young wife and mother pregnant with another child, faces a fateful decision about her future; and in the third segment, set in present-day New York City, Clarissa (Streep) a middle-aged editor puts the final touches on a party she is giving in honor of Richard, her best friend and ex-lover, a gay poet dying of AIDS.
Woolf is working on the opening sentence of what will be her most famous novel: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." That novel, set five years after the end of World War I, takes place in the course of a single June day. Clarissa Dalloway, "a perfect hostess," is by turns elated by the party she is throwing that evening for her husband, a backbencher in Parliament; conflicted by the re-appearance after many years of a rejected but much loved suitor back from India; and annoyed by her daughter's inexplicable friendship with a "dowdy" fundamentalist. Meanwhile, a shell-shocked veteran wanders the streets of London. Their paths cross, but they never meet. Yet his final desperate actions cast a pall over Clarissa's party and leads to some sobering reflections on her own snobbery and inauthenticity.
Mrs. Dalloway provides the link between the other two stories in "The Hours", as the '50s housewife Laura Brown uses the novel as a yardstick to measure the distance she must go to achieve personal fulfillment. And in the present-day story, Clarissa, the editor nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway" long ago by the dying poet, meticulously assembles every piece of Richard's party until another eruption of madness and despair ends all that.
Two of the stories simply failed to engage our sympathy. Woolf's epic battle with her first sentence as she tyrannizes her cook and bewilders her adoring husband belongs more to the province of comedy than tragedy. In the second segment, Laura (somnolently portrayed by Moore) is such a sleepwalker and so accepting of her stultifying suburban environment that we lose interest in her life well before she does. ("Fifties Revisionism" is the next big thing in Hollywood, apparently. Last fall, Moore played a similar role in Todd Haynes's "Far From Heaven," for which she is also nominated for Best Actress.)
In its last section, the film does come to a kind of fitful life: Clarissa trying valiantly to buoy the spirits of her difficult dying friend as she balances the competing claims of her own daughter and a lover. Here, the authors finally present us with characters that combine sense and sensibility in a high degree. Meryl Streep, Jeff Daniels as Richard's ex, and Allison Janey as Streep's partner are so good in their roles precisely because they are playing self aware characters who are determined to do their best whatever hand life deals them.
But even here, especially here, when we are supposed to feel pity and terror over Richard's fate, the film crashes with a thud. Ed Harris looks right as the disease-ravaged poet. But once he opens his mouth, he gives one of the hammiest performances of his career, mouthing embarrassing platitudes about art and life and "the hours." Some of the blame must go to Hare's flat-footed adaptation of material that was meant to be interior monologue rather than spoken by the characters.
But perhaps the greatest and most fatally compromising flaw with "The Hours" is the way in which Virginia Woolf is portrayed. We never for a moment learn what was so special about her as a woman and a writer besides her madness and her suicide. There is no hint of why she inspired such love and devotion from so many extraordinary men and women in her day: Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, Vita Sackville West, and her devoted husband, Leonard. There is no attempt to show how this woman could have held her own over the decades against such heavyweights of the modern literary consciousness as James Joyce and Marcel Proust.
To begin to answer this question, the film and the book would have had to allude in some way to her extraordinary upbringing. Virginia Woolf was born the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1903). Stephen wrote pieces for Fraser's Magazine and Fortnightly Review, his collection from which is called Essays on Free Thinking and Plain Speaking (1873). His major works include his History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century (1876), The Science of Ethics (1882), The English Utilitarian (1900) and Hobbes (1904). Along with these literary accomplishments, Stephen also was the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, a monumental labor that puts him in the company of Dr. Johnson as one of those Englishmen whose capacity for work transcends all ordinary modes of explanation. Noel Annan has observed "that to understand Stephen is to understand Evangelical morality and Victorian rationalism, the strongest influences of the age."
Thus we see that growing up in the Stephen household, Virginia, like John Stuart Mill before her, imbibed the spirit of London intellectual and literary life "with her mother's milk," as it were. Robert Lewis Stevenson, John Ruskin, Thomas Hardy, George Meredith and other writers were frequently guests at her home.
But, like Mill, the highly intellectualized circumstances of her youth were fraught with grave psychological consequences for her maturity. This kind of upbringing is bound to cause complications at a later stage when life "as a whole" must be confronted. The hours of reading and study under a brilliant father's tutelage do not necessarily prepare one for the "shocks that flesh is heir to." The tension she felt between the legacy of her father's formation of her intellect and those of life "as lived," must in part at least go to the cause of her suicide. This reverence and resentment she felt for her father is magnificently captured in what is perhaps her greatest novel, To the Lighthouse.
Woolf was one of the great workaholics of 20th-century English literature. She published 10 novels in 11 years, during which she also wrote four volumes worth of essays, several more volumes of short stories, and a biography of her friend, the most eminent art critic of the first part of the 20th century, Roger Fry. At the same time she was keeping a diary and writing thousands of letters, which have now been published. In the letters and diaries, Woolf lays down the material that she will later use in her stories, novels, and essays. For as long as she could maintain the delicate balance of her mind, she produced her fine essays for the Times Literary Supplement, the first collection of which was published as The Common Reader.
In the preface to that book, Woolf takes off from a comment from another figure in English literature distinguished by his capacity for Herculean laborsDr. Johnson. In his "Life of Gray," Johnson wrote that he rejoiced "to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted by literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim poetical honors."
In Woolf's view, Johnson's statement might "might well be written up in all those rooms, too humble to be called libraries, yet full of books, where the pursuit of reading is carried on by private people." She goes on:
The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself; out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of wholeæa portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic is too obvious to be pointed out, but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.
Given the arrival of what has come to be called the "post-literate society" and the depredations pursuant to Marshall McLuhan's famous attack on "the culture of the book" in the 1960s, we can now only hope that the "common reader" will survive the present phase of modern civilization. We should also hope that writers and filmmakers now and in the future will share the kind of respect for him or her as was shown by Dr. Johnson and endorsed by Mrs. Woolf.