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The Hours

Paramount Home Video

Starring Nicoile Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore

Written by David Hare
Directed by Stephen Daldry

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

The Hours takes on Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, the story of a supposedly perfect wife and hostess with a secret inner life — described by one of the characters as being about "this woman who's incredibly confident ... and maybe because she's incredibly confident everyone thinks she's fine — but she isn't" — and explores it's themes as an interconnected tale of three women living one important day of their lives in very different times. Julianne Moore is Laura Brown, a 1950s housewife who's reading Dalloway and battling serious depression; Meryl Streep plays modern-day Clarissa, planning a party for her long-time friend Robert (Ed Harris), a poet dying from AIDS (if her connection to the novel isn't clear enough, she also shares the same first name as the book's heroine and Robert's nickname for her is, seriously, "Mrs. Dalloway"); and finally there's Virginia Woolf herself in 1923 as played by Nicole Kidman in a big, fake nose, wrestling her own demons on her way to her inevitable sleep with the fishes.

Of his novel, on which David Hare based his screenplay adaptation, author Michael Cunningham told The New York Times "I firmly believed I was writing my little arty book that would sell maybe two to three thousand copies and retire with a certain battered dignity to the remainder table." Thrilled that it became a best seller and Pulitzer Prize-winner, he nonetheless thought, "I know no one's ever going to want to make a movie out of this, since there are no sex scenes or car chases in it." Indeed, the non-linear story (or non-story, if you will) was reportedly something of a pain to bring to screen, burning through some 30-odd versions of Hare's script, three different composers, and an ending that was re-shot ten months after the rest of the film had been completed.

Beginning and ending with Woolf's suicide in 1941 (separate from the one day allotted to each character but important thematically), The Hours is about choosing life ... or choosing to give in to death, depending on the individual. As one character says, the choice comes down to "what you can bear" — while seen as a sin by some, as the coward's way out by others, suicide for many (like Woolf, who offed herself in the river with her pockets full of rocks) is the choice made by those who just can't bear any more.

Or maybe I just misunderstood the theme here. Because the message of the movie could just as easily have been that people unclear on their sexuality are emotionally unstable and likely to be suicidal. Or, alternately, that women who kiss other women are just plain screwy. Winding through all three stories, so subtly as to be overly muted, is some kind of a message about closeted and/or confused sexuality. Though married, Woolf herself was a lover of both men and women, and in Mrs. Dalloway the main character's hottest kiss is shared with a woman; Streep's Clarissa lives with her lesbian partner but, years ago, was romantically involved with Harris's character — who left her for a mutual, male pal; repressed Laura, while comforting a cancer-stricken friend, gives in to temptation and gives the gal a lingering girl-girl kiss; and with similar impropriety, the slightly mad Woolf smooches on her own sister out of desperate longing. Meanwhile, marriages are mere sidelines to the important business being depressed and self-absorbed; Woolf's husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) is a frowny sort who just wants to keep her confined to the house so she won't get into trouble, while Laura's husband (John C. Reilly) and Clarissa's partner (Allison Janney) are so incidental to the story and have so few lines of dialogue that one wonders why recognizable actors were even cast in the parts.

All of this feels like it's somehow important without being clear as to just why that might be. Is '50s housewife Laura discovering her inner lesbo, or is she just freaking out like Woolf? Does the arrival and departure of Robert's ex-lover (a bland and befuddled Jeff Daniels) exist for any reason other than to give Streep someone to play off during her Oscar-clip crying scene? And why the hell would Virginia Woolf want to snog her own sister? Often it's good to leave an audience with questions, if only so they have something to talk about later over cake and coffee. But in this case it feels more like director Stephen Daldry is doing the same sort of tap-dance around gay issues that he did in Billy Elliot — touching on them just enough to throw the question open for discussion but not addressing them with so much depth that conservative moviegoers will start shrieking, "gay agenda!" It feels, in other words, like something of a cop-out.

*          *          *

On its theatrical release, the preponderance of praise for The Hours was heaped on Kidman (who won a Best Actress Oscar for the role) and her great, huge schnoz. Despite the fact that she really doesn't look like Woolf (who was more physically attractive than portrayed here and whose nose wasn't really that big) or sound like Woolf (whose true accent, Kidman opines in one of the DVD's bonus features, would have sounded comical to modern ears), she manages to convey a sort of scruffy, bohemian nuttiness. But virtually any decent actress could have done what Kidman did, which was lower her voice, slump, smoke hand-rolled cigs, and paste on a fake honker. In typical Hollywood style, Kidman was lauded not so much for the depth of her performance as for making herself up to look — gasp! — like an ordinary person. How daring! And while Streep is very good as Clarissa, well, Streep is always very good, and it's not like she hasn't done the high-strung WASP shtick a hundred times before.

The real performance gem here is Julianne Moore as the pathologically depressed Laura. Moore not only does a brilliant job of conveying the true hell of depression, she also manages to make the idea of suicide both palatable and sympathetic. With the same lack of finesse that runs throughout Hare's entire script, Laura is six months pregnant — which puts a none-too-fine point on her feelings of despair but is also patently designed to make us root against her taking her life. If she wasn't pregnant, would her consideration of taking a pile of pills and ending it all be nearly as cut-and-dried? Or would it be, like Woolf's choice, understandable and even, perhaps, laudable? However you look at it, Moore plays Laura's lost sadness so well that The Hours should be required viewing for anyone who can't comprehend how difficult absolutely everything can be for those in the throes of depression. Laura's inability to make a birthday cake for her husband, and the pain she experiences when both her visiting friend and her own small son tell her that baking a cake is the easiest thing in the world, is equally affecting and frustrating. When we watch Laura sit crying in the bathroom — lost, isolated and miserable as her clueless, cheerful husband keeps calling for her to come to bed — it's perhaps the most heart-wrenching scene the actress has played in a movie to date.

Throughout the film, mercilessly driving home the depression theme, is Philip Glass's repetitive, monotonous score. If Moore's performance illustrates how depressed people act, then Glass's music is equally representative of how depressed people feel — not since the plinky-plink piano hell of Eyes Wide Shut has a score so made me want to drive nails into my own skull. The music was nominated for an Academy Award and won a BAFTA ... but then the film, which was created primarily to garner awards from it's inception, was nominated for eight major Oscars including Best Costume. Thank heavens Glass didn't win, or the new trend in film music would be cacophonous, discordant, post-modern faux-classical tedium.

Frustrating and affecting in equal measure, The Hours is an almost-satisfying "women's picture" with world-class performances and a plot that's pounded down with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. This is what Hollywood likes to call an "important" film, with slender shreds of plot devoted to AIDS, homosexuality, suicide, and cancer. Ultimately, though, it's a slight (if well-made) film about how even people gifted with family, friends, talent, and wealth can be brought to their knees by their own inner demons — and which points out that some people, no matter how close we are to them, are unknowable in the dark lives they live inside their own heads.

*          *          *

Paramount offers The Hours as part of their "Widescreen Collection"and as a "Special Collector's Edition" (enough with the special/collector/widescreen/extreme/award winner editions, already!) in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1). It's a good transfer, clean and rich, and an accurate representation of the theatrical presentation. The Dolby Digital 5.0 audio more than does justice to this dialogue-heavy film, and to Philip Glass's score.

There's just enough extras to get fans of the film to open their wallets for this DVD. First up are two commentary tracks, one by actresses Streep, Kidman and Moore. The three women were recorded separately and edited together — there's nothing spectacular here, but the actresses are detailed and pontificate with great intelligence about the making of the film. Streep is laid back and humorous; Kidman is more concerned with the nuts-and-bolts of the production; and Moore, as you might imagine, has the most to say about her process as an actor. The second track, with director Daldry and novelist Michael Cunningham, is dry as dust — but filled with background information and history, as well as a lot of discussion on the complicated process of adapting the novel.

Moving on to the "special features" menu, there's a Filmmaker's Introduction, where director Daldry talks about his approach. It's only two minutes long, and eminently skippable.

Three Women (16:00) is a very nice "making-of" featurette combining behind-the-scenes footage with clips and interviews. One amusing segment addresses Daldry's direction of the actor who played Moore's young son; knowing that he couldn't really understand the complexity of the scenes he was playing, Daldry, O'Reilly, or a crew member would read fairy tales to the boy, then use whichever of his reactions best fit the moment.

In The Mind and Times of Virginia Woolf (24:30), readings of Woolf's writings are combined with photographs and comments by Woolf biographers and experts to give an overview of the writer's life, work and marriage. It's a very information-intensive feature, perhaps only of interest to viewers who want to know every single detail about Woolf no matter how mundane.

The Music of The Hours (7:00) is interesting mostly for director Daldry's explanation that earlier scores had been rejected because "everything with a traditional film score seemed to reduce or simplify or sentimentalize what were layered, subtextual emotions." So they went with tedium, instead, choosing Philip Glass, who wrote a score that's pretty the first few times you hear the theme but eventually makes you want to find Glass and slap him silly. Okay, maybe you won't feel that way about the music — if so, you might enjoy hearing Glass talk about how he came up with his (limited, repetitive) tunes.

In The Lives of Mrs. Dalloway (9:30), novelist Cunningham, screenwriter Hare, and director Daldry talk about Woolf's writing ("What she was doing with language is like what Jimi Hendrix was doing with a guitar," says Cunningham — no really, he actually says that), about her famous novel, about Cunningham's book, about Hare's screenplay, and about bringing it all to the screen.

Also on board: the theatrical trailer and a preview for How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.

— Dawn Taylor

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