Film Reviews: Wednesday, January 16, 2003
Crying Woolf

A terrific novel becomesa film that’ll have youcounting The Hours.


The January season of Oscar contenders wouldn’t be complete without at least one big, humorless, self-important, star-laden vehicle that falls flat on its expensive face. This year, it’s The Hours, a movie that’s all angst and pedigree and great actors expending a lot of energy trying to convince us that something significant is going on. The film’s based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, but everything vibrant and alive in Cunningham’s wondrous evocation of three women in widely different circumstances has either been reduced to a cliché or made entirely incomprehensible.

Like the novel, the movie takes place in three distinct times and locations. In Sussex in 1924, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) struggles with bouts of mental illness as she begins writing her new novel, Mrs. Dalloway. In Los Angeles in 1951, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is reading Mrs. Dalloway and wonders why she’s so miserable when she lives in a big house with a husband and son who love her so much. In New York in 2001, Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), who’s called “Mrs. Dalloway” by her friend Richard (Ed Harris), throws a party for him to celebrate his winning a prestigious poetry prize, though he doesn’t want to go because he’s dying of AIDS complications.

Director Stephen Daldry is on his second film, and whereas he served up synthetic emotional uplift in his debut Billy Elliott, he serves up synthetic emotional crises here. The book intercuts the three stories, and the repetition of story elements builds dramatic power. The movie does the same thing, but the repetition here is just repetitive, giving the impression of a film running madly in circles. Philip Glass’ score does not help. His music, mind-numbingly boring in the concert hall, can be mesmerizing on film (The Thin Blue Line), but here it only adds to the oppressive atmosphere.

Then again, maybe the blame for this should go to the adapting screenwriter, the estimable playwright David Hare. He has a tough assignment; a main feature of the book is Cunningham’s uncanny impersonation of Woolf’s prose style. We can’t blame him for losing that, but it’s unfortunate that he replaces it with sententiously pseudo-profound dialogue, such as Virginia intoning, “One cannot find peace by avoiding life,” or Laura’s husband (John C. Reilly) telling her, “I had a vision of our happiness together.” Much of the novel’s strength comes from the author’s Woolfian ability to get inside his characters’ heads and tell us what they’re thinking as they go through their daily routines. Hare never finds a way to do the same, and the result is sketchy characterization. Laura, who obsesses about baking a perfect cake in her desperation to be a perfect homemaker, comes off as a caricature of a discontented 1950s housewife, unlike the similar character that Moore played in Far From Heaven. Things are even worse in the present-day segment, where supporting characters from the book who should have been cut get shoehorned in. Clarissa tells someone that she feels herself unraveling, but who can figure out why unless they’ve read the novel?

Neither Moore nor Streep overcomes the bad writing in their segments, so it’s Kidman who walks away with the acting honors. She doesn’t look like Virginia Woolf, but her prosthetic nose makes her look unlike herself, which is all that’s really needed. Her frumpy clothes and shambling walk are perhaps a bit much for portraying such a refined novelist, but Kidman gets the writer’s querulousness, her too-finely-tuned sensitivities, and her frustration with her inner demons and the people trying to help her.

The supporting cast is insanely deep, but the talent comes to surprisingly little. Harris is supposed to be a gay man with a florid theatrical streak; it’s not a trick he can pull off. Jeff Daniels as Richard’s ex is also wide of the mark — a black turtleneck sweater alone does not turn a straight actor into a gay character. Reilly is playing his third oblivious husband in the last six months, and he did it to much better effect in The Good Girl and Chicago. In a movie that sorely needs comic relief, the actors who provide it come off the best. Allison Janney throws a few curveballs as Clarissa’s lesbian partner, and she gives an amusing demonstration of how to lay a piece of dry cleaning on a bed when one’s hands are full. As Clarissa’s daughter, Claire Danes bounces into the film and provides a couple minutes’ worth of respite from the Sturm und Drang.

Still, it’s a losing battle. If Pedro Almodóvar hadn’t taken it, this movie could have been called Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. (In an odd coincidence, a character in Almodóvar’s current film Talk to Her is discovered reading a Spanish translation of The Hours.) The difference is, Almodóvar has never confused high seriousness with profundity. That’s a lesson these filmmakers have yet to learn.

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