My favorite film is The Hours. It didn’t used to be, and it may not always be, but this film currently tops my list.
I have the ability to re-watch all my favorite movies an astounding number of times, often leading to me knowing the film by heart (as anyone who’s ever heard me quote, say, Mrs. Doubtfire, can attest to). But The Hours is one of those few movies I actually do feel I can re-watch and walk away with new interpretations and sensations when I see it. I don’t just recognize it, I discover the new (and rediscover the old sometimes too).
Imagine my surprise when the director Stephen Daldry opened his introductory comments on the Special Features of my new DVD of The Hours by stating that one of his objectives in making the film was crafting it so that it would, in fact, be a movie to watch again and again. In so doing, one could uncover new connections in the film, new emotional resonances.
The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Michael Cunningham. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999, as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award in the same year. The book offers three stories in one:
It follows a day in the life of Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman) in Richmond, England, in 1923. She and her husband Leonard Woolf live in Hogarth House, where they work on a printing press of the same name. Leonard desperately hopes the quiet of the country will prove beneficial to Virginia’s health; but as the story unfolds and the author begins writing her masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway, we see no signs of healing or comfort anywhere in Hogarth House.
The second story takes place in Los Angeles, in 1951. Laura Brown (played fantastically by Julianne Moore) seems to lead a picture-perfect life with her doting, hardworking veteran husband and her quiet and strangely discerning young son in post-World War II America. The “fragile looking” Laura reads Mrs. Dalloway and plans for her husband’s birthday party; all the while her world unravels. To me, this storyline is the most thrillingly tense and ominous of the three.
Finally, we have New York City in 2001. Clarissa Vaughan (played by Meryl Streep in one of my favorite roles), bustling, busy, and confident, prepares a party for her poet friend Richard. Ravaged by advanced AIDS and struggling with unspecified mental illnesses, Richard has won the (fictional) Carrouthers Prize for a life’s work in poetry. This storyline (no plot spoilers) contains one of my favorite scenes of any film I have ever seen.
The movie used to depress me greatly. To a degree, it still does. My father said it could be difficult to watch since it “portrayed lives of much torment”. I have to agree; and yet I’m mesmerized by this torment I see, not least due to the, by turns, soothing, thrilling, and crushing original score, composed by Philip Glass.
Nicole Kidman won the Oscar for her performance as Virginia Woolf. Lots of controversy surrounded the fact that she used a fake prosthetic nose and heavy makeup to look more like the original Woolf. The harshest description I found was that of Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, where he stated that he was “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. ” Ouch. I’ll let you judge for yourself:
I admit, I was angry at the Academy’s decision as well, thinking the Oscar should have gone to Renee Zellweger for her performance as Roxie in Chicago (give me a break: I was fourteen, and it was my first real encounter with a musical (the beginning of a beautiful affair). And I DO think Zellweger was fabulous in the role). Later, I amended my thoughts to thinking that Julianne Moore should have been nominated for leading actress of The Hours as well as Kidman: the story was about all three women, why on Earth was her nomination for supporting actress in the film she costars with Kidman? And why on Earth did Catherine Zeta Jones walk home with that Oscar over Moore?! Alas, Moore was nominated for the lead in a different film, Far From Heaven, which I have not seen.
Now, I’m not so sure what I think. Kidman’s performance WAS good, just not quite Oscar-worthy to my mind. And some evil tongues said it WAS all about the makeup (as some contended with Ben Kingsley’s Academy Award for Gandhi (1982) and his startling similarity to the eponymous character. But I don’t think that performance can be questioned). But considering the lack of coverage Kidman got for her heart-wrenching (and, to my mind, certainly Oscar-worthy) performance in Rabbit Hole (2010), maybe merit and recognition does all balance out in the end. After all, Meryl Streep hardly needs another Oscar as proof of her merit: I believe Meryl Streep is currently the greatest actress living.
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I used to muse over whether or not to read Cunningham’s The Hours. I adored the film; if the book took completely different paths, would I enjoy it?
After perusing a copy at the Brookline Booksmith, I decided against reading it, at least for now. Glancing through the pages, I could perceive pretty clearly that the film the The Hours was not meant to be a faithful adaptation. It was an original poetic expression. I will probably write a post about that subject alone: when a book’s film version takes on a life of its own, becomes its own work of art, and the whining arguments of finger-wagging (or rather fist-shaking), diehard fans of the original become increasingly irrelevant.
For now, I notice my interest in the film has been renewed. I particularly enjoyed the segment in the Special Features titled “The Mind and Times of Virginia Woolf”. Combining biographical information (the bit about the Bloomsbury Group particularly piqued my interest) and discussion of her works and contribution to modern literature, the segment was informative and colorful. One of Woolf’s best biographers, Hermione Lee, seemed particularly attune to considering Virginia Woolf’s life and her work independently (the importance of this is paramount, as I shall recount in the weeks to come, when I discuss the nonsense surrounding doubts of Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays). I viscerally feel the incredible importance of this fact: to read an author’s work as merely a reflection and regurgitation of the facts of his/her life, of his/her experiences, is to undermine the work’s value, the author’s abilities, and the unspeakable power of the imagination, of the gifts and labors of visionaries.
Of course, this entailed another stop at the bookstore this evening; my pile of books continues to grow. I now sit, silently, listening to the last song of Glass’s score (please, please listen to it), trying to grasp the immensity and profound (and despairing) consequences of Woolf’s words as she reminds her beloved Leonard:
“To look life in the face… always… to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is. At last… to know it, to love it for what it is…and then to put it away.”