In continuing with the theme of Meryl Streep films, The Hours. One of the most thoughtful and compelling films I have seen, I had to really watch it several times to have some understanding of it. According to The Guardian‘s review:
A melancholy 1920s English novelist is crucified with fear of encroaching madness. A depressed housewife in 1940s Los Angeles, unable to bake cakes or look after children properly, is paralysed with secret horror that she’s not a real homemaker. An editor in modern-day Manhattan is caring for a distinguished writer dying from Aids, oppressed by pseudo-wifely self-denial and the knowledge that any feelings he had for her were despatched long ago by turning their affair into material for a novel. Three women, three lives, three imprisoned, solitary souls in the same cell block.
This is the movie-triptych that director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare have assembled, taken from Michael Cunningham’s novel, and its constituent, handsomely mounted panels are inhabited by three earnest, meticulous performances.
Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf, working on the first draft of Mrs Dalloway, the stream-of-consciousness work of 1925, about the society hostess whose air of omnicompetence conceals inner turmoil. Julianne Moore is the housewife Laura Brown, inspired by her bedside copy of Mrs Dalloway to attempt a terrible escape, but loyally showing her husband Dan (John C Reilly) a cheerful, smiling face which becomes set in a rictus of despair. Finally, there is Meryl Streep as Clarissa, neglecting her partner Sally (Allison Janney) for the torch she still holds for prizewinning literary star Richard Brown (Ed Harris), organising a celebratory dinner for him – the fate of which is to echo the denouement of Woolf’s novel.
It is a daring act of extrapolation, and a real departure from most movie-making, which can handle only one universe at a time. Oddly, the comparisons that popped into my head were Noel Coward’s Cavalcade or This Happy Breed, with their episodic stories of reticent, clenched courage and pain. Virginia Woolf is somehow supposed to be the grandmotherly ancestor both of women’s agony and the means to cure it. But by intercutting between them, Daldry more or less persuades us that the three women’s stories are atemporal, that they exist alongside each other not in sequence but in parallel.
So Virginia, Laura and Clarissa demonstrate a metempsychosis, a transmigration of souls; the languor of their private breakdowns are cousins to each other. Little touches recur like resonant musical themes. All three are shown breaking eggs against mixing bowls: a tender image of nurturing and motherhood. Virginia’s very eccentric, shapeless dress in 1920 contains the DNA that weaves Laura’s pinafore in 1945 and Clarissa’s housecoat in 2001.
Whether or not any of this constitutes a feminist argument is tricky. It is a vantage point from which it looks disappointingly as if precisely nothing has been achieved for women’s happiness over 80 years, other than to transfer some of the victimhood prerogative to a gay man. But the movie is still a compassionate scrutiny of the quiet desperation in many women’s lives, and the act of writing serves as a way of understanding how Laura, Clarissa and Virginia reconcile their real worlds with the alternative, secret existences they imagine for themselves.
“I believe I may have a first sentence,” mutters Virginia, stupefied by the possibilities of fiction – possibilities that do not scare her stolid, supportive and thoroughly exasperated husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane). When she is not at her desk, nervy Virginia is being beastly to the staff, ordering her mutinous cook to make a train journey all the way from Richmond to the centre of town to get some sugar-ginger for lunch. “You’re not still frightened of the servants?” asks Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson) acidly – and here is an aspect of middle-class women’s lives that has no obvious equivalent in the more democratic eras of 1945 and 2001.
Clarissa is to be fiction’s handmaiden in both the personal and professional sense: an editor who, though she might not herself have worked on Richard’s manuscripts, supplied the inspiration for his novel with their love affair and cannot decide if its appearance in his fiction is an exaltation or a betrayal. Sandwiched between them is Julianne Moore’s Laura: not a writer but a reader, someone who feels the liberating possibilities of literature more keenly than either of them.
The performances that Daldry elicits from them are all strong: tightly managed, smoothly and dashingly juxtaposed under a plangent score. I have to confess I am agnostic about Nicole Kidman, who as Woolf murmurs her lines through an absurd prosthetic nose. It’s almost a Hollywood Disability. You’ve heard of Daniel Day-Lewis and My Left Foot. This is Nicole and her Big Fake Schnoz. It doesn’t look anything like the real Virginia’s sharp, fastidious features. Hollywood is a little in love right now with literary Dead White Females, adoring them not for their books but their tragic diseases. (We’ve had Kate Winslet as Iris Murdoch; soon it’s going to be Gwyneth Paltrow as – gulp! – Sylvia Plath.) There’s a stifling piety about it, which is why this movie so often looks like an ever-so-classy bid for awards.
Julianne Moore gives another tight-violin-string portrayal of a terrified soul with a flash of panic behind the eyes. It is superbly controlled, humane performance – though destined to be measured against her similar, but incomparably more powerful and developed presence in Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven. Streep’s performance is probably the most fully realised of the three: a return to the kind of mature and demanding role on which she had a freehold in yesterday’s Hollywood. Harassed, distracted, tormented with a passion masquerading as compassion, she is sickeningly aware that her own life has dribbled through her fingers.