On ‘The Hours’

The Hours (2002) by Stephen Daldry

Another class, another movie review. Actually it is the same class the second time around, and another movie review because I blogged the first one, so that I could not use it again (the one about The Women, 2008). Here goes (minus mistakes, hopefully):

The Hours was the working title Virginia Woolf gave the novel that was going to be published as Mrs Dalloway in 1925. In 1998 a novel of this same title was published; the author was Michael Cunningham, and the plot concerned itself with three women: the writer Virginia Woolf, a fictional reader, Mrs. Brown, and an equally fictional character of the same first name and character as Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughn. This novel was made into a movie in 2002, and – just like the novel before it – won awards and critics’ appreciation.
I had read both novels before I even heard that there was going to be a movie featuring Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman. And, even though I am naturally suspicious of novels being made into film – if The Scarlet Letter (1995) taught me anything, it’s that it’s not necessarily a good idea to make adaptations – I was looking forward to it just because Meryl Streep was going to be in it.


I think the importance of being Meryl Streep cannot be underestimated. Casting her for a movie, producers and directors are aware that it might not be what people call a blockbuster, it might not even be a good movie, but you have cast somebody who knows her craft – and let’s face it, that is so often not the case that it sometimes hurts the eyes, yes, I am talking about you, Mr. Orlando Bloom. In a world (the movies) where things can go so terribly wrong as to cast Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett (another bad idea for an adaptation that came later), Meryl Streep is a constant pleasure to watch – even if she stars in a bad movie (not that I remember a really bad movie starring Meryl Streep). She is already a movie icon – and she’s not even dead. So, hearing she was going to play Clarissa Vaughn in the The Hours-adaptation got me hooked from the start.
And I was not disappointed, and am still not. Watching the movie again after several years, I was again sucked into the lives of the three women who are portrayed, I was again fascinated by the incredible performances Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore gave.
But let’s run down a little bit of the plot, so we know what happens. The movie starts with Virginia Woolf’s suicide in 1941 (I do not remember if the novel starts there as well, though I think it does). Everything that comes after pretty much explains why it had to come to this tragic end of so talented and tortured a writer. But we also meet her when she was just beginning to write her famous novel, and how her daily life poses a burden she does not easily handle.


The audience is introduced to Laura Brown, who is unhappily married with a second child on the way. In 1949, she is reading Mrs. Dalloway as a way out of her own life and finds a kindred spirit in the character. Laura is the heroine that does not die (as Clarissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s novel).
We meet Clarissa Vaughn, who lives in New York during the 1990s, and she is organizing a party (like Mrs. Dalloway) for her friend, and ex-lover, Richard, who is dying of AIDS (he is the poet that has to die so that the heroine can live).
The similarities with “Mrs. Dalloway” are obvious. The movie describes a day in the life of Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa – as Virginia Woolf’s novel described a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway. Their stories are begun with the same sentence the famous novel does: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” Virginia writing it, Laura reading it, Clarissa saying it. For somebody who is a declared fan of Virginia Woolf and especially of Mrs. Dalloway (as I am) it is like revisiting the novel without actually reading it (or even watching the excellent 1997 film adaptation). There are moments to rediscover and maybe even to reevaluate.
The details that Michael Cunningham conveyed in his own novel are taken up by director Stephen Daldry and are translated beautifully onto the screen. It is a pleasure to watch the movie. It is visually challenging (as times and places change often), the actresses (and actors) show a raw vulnerability that makes the stories believable and hard to watch at the same time. Nicole Kidman (who was awarded the Academy Award for her performance as Virginia Woolf) is portrayed without her beauty and charms, she is awkward and intense, and shows an ability few people would have granted her.
Julianne Moore shows a truly stunning performance as Laura Brown, the woman who leaves her children and husband to start a life of her own. Of all the truly great performances, hers moved me the most. And it wasn’t even her only outstanding performance of the year as she was nominated as both Best Actress in a Supporting Role (for The Hours) and Best Actress in a Leading Role (for Far From Heaven) – and surprisingly enough went home empty handed.


Since the performances were all fantastic and the movie was overall pleasing to eye, ear (it has a wonderful instrumental soundtrack as well, not that I hear a lot of the music that is being played in the background), and intellect, one might assume that everybody was happy and that there’s nothing to critique. Well, one could have gone home happy and not find anything amiss, had one (that is me) not read Michael Cunningham’s book. And really, maybe it is just my overcritical self that finds fault with one aspect of Stephen Daldry’s directing. In Mrs. Dalloway, Sally kisses Clarissa. The Hours (the novel) takes up this kiss in each of the three segments: Virginia kisses her sister Vanessa at the tea table behind the back of the maid, secretly, sweetly; Laura kisses her friend Kitty in her kitchen, longingly, passionately; Clarissa kisses her partner Sally in passing at the foot of the stairs of her townhouse in New York, habitually, passionless, pointlessly. Daldry takes these kisses up, and unfortunately twists them into something it should not have been. While he is true to the place and circumstances of the kiss between Laura and Kitty, he gives it an innocence the book was not aiming at. While Laura in the book seemed to have her passion awakened by that one kiss with a woman, Laura’s concern with Kitty in the film seems almost too consoling (Kitty is about to go to the hospital and it is indicated that she might have cancer). Virginia almost violently places a desperate kiss on her sister (the indication is clear, as without that kiss the audience might not have known that Virginia was involved with women throughout her life and possibly also with her sister in younger years), giving the scene a sensationalist element. But the most misleading kissing scene is the one between Sally and Clarissa, as the one in the book indicates the ending of their relationship. The film turns it around into an inevitable happy ending as we see Clarissa and Sally sitting on their bed. Clarissa finally turns toward Sally and her efforts to save their relationship and places a good and wet one on her. It is a little disconcerting to see the characters and situations of the novel turned into Hollywood standards. The need for a happy ending, a resolution in at least one of the stories, the rehabilitation of a female character who has been unhappy without even knowing why, these are narratives you will find more likely in a movie than in a book where situations are allowed to remain unsolved.

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3 thoughts on “On ‘The Hours’

  1. Your review of “The Hours” covers the selected topic of particular kisses and their significance in this movie. Of more significance than any of the kisses that you mention, is the open mouth-to-mouth kiss between Clarissa and Richard. Richard is HIV positive with full-blown AIDS — that kiss is intended to obtain acceptance from Clarissa by Richard and to display and give acceptance to Richard from Clarissa, at risk of consequences. Is Clarissa’s display of exacerbation immediately after they separate one of concern about potential consequences? Is this a suicide move by Clarissa? That kiss was more loaded that any I’ve seen in a long time…
    Why did you leave this kiss out of your review?

    1. you’re certainly right that it was a loaded kiss – but i wasn’t looking for the most controversial here. my concern with the kisses i wrote about went back to the original story of ‘mrs dalloway’ and the kiss between clarissa and sally. the way it was described by woolf made it the most important in clarissa’s (dalloway) life – the changes that’s been made to that kiss by cunningham and daldry were significant for me.
      it’s been a while since i wrote the review, watched the movie and read the book. maybe when i’ll get back to the texts i will write about other things, too, including that kiss. thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. The Hours is a great achievement for all of the people involved in this project. Credit must go to the director, Stephen Daldry, who pulls all the elements together.

    Having admired the text where this film is based, I wondered what would any writer do with Michael Cunningham’s book where three lives of three different eras intermingle with one another. David Hare treatment of the material rings true to the novel in which it’s based.

    The biggest revelation in the film is Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf. I have been a great admirer of this, up to now, underrated Australian actress, right from her beginnings down under. Her approach to the role is very subdued, perhaps underplaying, where someone else might try to have gone over the top stressing Virginia’s madness. All the praise Ms Kidman has received for this film is certainly well deserved.

    The other great performance is Julianne Moore. This actress keeps getting better and better with any new appearance on the screen. Her Laura Brown is a pathetic figure. She’s a desperate soul trapped in the Los Angeles suburbia of the 40s. She has a man, who obviously loves her. She has a son who shows all the signs, even then, of what he might ultimately become in life. Laura wants to end it all. She just doesn’t belong in that world of domestic bliss. Ms Moore gets the right tone in playing Laura. There’s not a wrong movement in her approach to this demanding role.

    The third outstanding portrayal is Meryl Streep’s. The sure hand of the director is obviously behind her reining the excesses she likes so well. This Clarissa Vaughan is in limbo in her own life. Her relationship with the younger lover is clearly over, or at least seen better days. Ms Streep gives a dignified reading of this character.

    The rest of the cast is brilliant: Miranda Richardson, Tony Colette, Ed Harris, John C. Reilly, and little Jack Rovello. They are all on the mark.

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