27 January 2003 | Buddy-51
compelling tale of depression
The first thing that may strike you about `The Hours' is that this film features more major characters who are gay, or at least bisexual, than any mainstream movie I can think of. Based on the novel by Michael Cunningham, this is the powerful story of three women from three different time periods who have one thing in common: they are all leading lives filled with depression, despondency and despair, not because they are gay, mind you, but because they are human.
First there is the famous early 20th Century author Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman), who is doing daily battle with her own mental illness, a disease that is slowly destroying her own life and the lives of those around her. The story picks up her life at the time right after she has been released from an institution and been sent to spend a quiet, uneventful and restful time convalescing in the country with her husband. It is here that she begins writing her famous novel `Mrs. Dalloway,' an introspective tale of a woman who comes to realize that her well-ordered life is really just a collection of meaningless routines meaninglessly performed. This novel serves as the glue that binds together the three women of the story as they, too, come to see their own lives in this way. Julianne Moore is Laura Brown, a housewife living in the 1950's, who finds her domestic existence to be as much a prison as Virginia Woolf finds her life in the secluded countryside. Despite the fact that she has a husband and a child who clearly adore her, Laura struggles with the fact that she is unable to find the fulfillment she seeks out of life in the role of wife and mother which society has decreed for her. This leads her to a feeling of perpetual ennui and depression and even to the notion of ending it all through suicide (suicide is, in fact one of the major motifs of the work). This role provides an interesting counterpoint to Moore's character in `Far From Heaven.' In both films she is a woman attempting to cope with the stifling nature of life for a typical housewife in the 1950's, yet in the other film, SHE is the one devastated to discover that her husband is a closet homosexual, while, in this film, she herself is the one harboring secret lesbian feelings. This, of course, strengthens the parallels with Virginia Woolf, since she too had love affairs with women. The third character is a contemporary woman played by Meryl Streep. Like the fictional character Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughn is a woman whose life appears to others to be well ordered and fulfilling, yet she realizes that it is really a life built around meaningless triviality. Clarissa has a lesbian partner of ten years, yet the spark of love between them seems to have gone out. Clarissa spends most of her time regretting the loss of her one true love, the troubled poet, Richard Brown (Ed Harris), a gay man struggling with the final stages of AIDS, who wants nothing more than to rant against the injustice of his fate.
Cunningham's story is, obviously, a symphony of despair. In fact, I haven't seen this many depressed people in one film since Ingmar Bergman passed from the filmmaking scene some twenty odd years ago. Yet, `The Hours' isn't really a depressing film because the artistry used to tell the tale elevates it to the realm of poetry. David Hare's screenplay does a beautiful job weaving in and out of the three different time periods, finding effective transitions that link the various women and their situations. Director Stephen Daldry establishes a lyrical, melancholic mood that draws us into this world of sadness and regret. He also, of course, has a veritable who's who of some of the world's top film actors to work with here. Nicole Kidman gives a beautifully controlled, heartbreaking performance as the troubled Ms. Woolf, conveying a veritable cauldron of seething inner emotions through a strangely unchanging, passive and emotionless exterior. Her work here is a model of restraint and discipline, especially given the fact that many other actresses might have used this showy role as an opportunity to `go all out' in a display of thespian overkill. Julianne Moore does the same with her role, also underplaying the emotions her character is experiencing, the better to highlight the sense of stultifying confinement she finds in her life. Streep is allowed a little more leeway in the sense that she alone gets to emote at a higher level, actually raging against the demons that haunt her (as, perhaps, befits a woman living in the 21st Century). Ed Harris does a superb job getting to the core of his character as well. He doesn't have much actual time on screen, but he makes his scenes count for all they're worth.
`The Hours' is, obviously, a movie made for a specialized audience, one not easily scared off by a film with powerful themes and complex characters. In this epic of angst, three superb actresses end up taking us on a journey deep into the darkest recesses of the human soul - a journey that would be pretty much unbearable if they themselves were not there to guide us through it.