But I still have to face the hours, don't I? The hours after the party, and the hours after that…
The Hours holds the particular distinction of being the only movie I've ever seen that is better than the book on which it is based. And we're not talking just any book, either. Michael Cunningham's The Hours has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and is a New York Times bestseller. In other words, it's a phenomenal book. But the movie is better.
Facts of the Case
A woman's whole life in a single day. Just one day and in that day, her whole life.
The Hours is the story of three days in the lives of three women—Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman, To Die For, Moulin Rouge!, The Others) in 1923, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore, Boogie Nights, Hannibal, Far From Heaven) in 1951, and Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep, Kramer vs. Kramer, Out of Africa, Adaptation) in 2001—connected by a book, Mrs. Dalloway. On their respective days, Virginia has just begun writing the book, Laura has just begun reading the book, and Clarissa has just begun living a day that loosely mirrors that of the day depicted in the book. They are a writer, a reader, and a character, and they are all searching for happiness in a world in which they're not sure they belong.
Virginia's fate, as we learn in the first scene of the movie, is to drown herself in a river, fed up with a mental illness that stops her from working and makes her a burden to her husband, Leonard. But that won't be until 1941. Now she is stuck in a small town, having been moved away from the bustle of London that was thought to have contributed to her illness, and she is miserable. In her own words, one "cannot find peace by avoiding life."
During this day, we watch Virginia struggle against her circumstances and we watch her formulate what will become "Mrs. Dalloway," an innovative book that still resonates today. We watch her write the opening line: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself" (a line that continues in the other two stories: Laura reads "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself," and Clarissa says "Sally, I think I'll buy the flowers myself"); we watch her contemplate which character will die ("Someone has to die in order that the rest of us will value life more. It's contrast."); we watch her create her masterpiece.
Laura is married to a war veteran and has a son, Richie, and a baby on the way. She has, on the surface, the perfect life: a husband who dotes on her, children, a house in suburbia…the works. But she's unhappy. She spends her time dreaming about the lives she reads about. She feels trapped by wifehood and motherhood, and she feels she's a failure at them both.
Clarissa lives with her partner of 10 years, Sally, but focuses most of her energy on caring for (and caring too much about) her first love and longtime friend, Richard, who is dying of AIDS complications. On this day, she is finalizing the details for the party she has planned for that evening to celebrate Richard being awarded a lifetime achievement prize for his poetry. But when she checks in on Richard in the morning, he is reluctant to attend and caught up in his own despair. Despite his pain, we recognize that he knows he is a burden to her and is keeping her from living her own life and being happy in her own right ("Just wait until I die, then you'll have to think about yourself"). On some level, Clarissa knows too that she is being held back from happiness by her love for Richard. This is paralleled as Virginia is being held back by her location and her illness and Laura is being held back by her family.
Always the years between us. Always the years, always the love, and always the hours.
Where do I begin? This is a spectacular movie in every aspect: the story, the acting, the cinematography, and the music. It all combines to leave you awestruck at its quality and poignancy, to leave you (or at least me) pensive for days, reevaluating your life and your purpose.
And it does so without ever consciously intending to. It made me gasp audibly in horror and shock, it made me reminisce and hope and regret and wonder, and it made me cry. But I never got the impression it purposely evoked these reactions. I've watched Lifetime movies that effected similar emotions, but they did so with intent; their sole goal was always to manipulate me into feeling. The goal of The Hours, on the other hand, is to tell a story, and any emotion I experienced was honest and a testament to how brilliantly it accomplishes that goal.
How could it not accomplish that goal brilliantly, though, with its triad of talented lead actors and an amazing supporting cast? Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep—any one of these women could carry a film by herself, but The Hours is endowed with all three of them, and backup from Ed Harris (The Abyss, Pollock), John C. Reilly (Boogie Nights, Chicago), and Allison Janney (The West Wing) to boot.
The high standards carry over into the cinematography, where we are provided with a movie that is, quite simply, beautiful. Whether it was director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliott) or his cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, who allowed us this beauty—who gave us Virginia's suicide in the river, her body pulled away by the current, her hair wildly splayed, her shoe floating gently away from her foot—The Hours would not have its power without it. It is a story best told visually. Yes, it has dialogue and yes, that dialogue is real and smart and even crushing at times, but talking about a woman putting a stone in her pocket and walking into a icy, rushing river is one thing; seeing it is quite another. And seeing it through the eyes of The Hours is, as it should be with the best cinematography, ultimately indescribable.
Fortunately, the 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer meets the challenge set by the cinematographer and we are given a nearly flawless picture. I say "nearly" because I did see a couple specks of dirt in one scene, but they were so brief I had to go back to make sure my eyes weren't deceiving me. Other than that minute error, the picture is gorgeous.
Adding a perfectly calibrated finishing touch to The Hours is the score by Philip Glass. Philip Glass, really? Yes, really. This score is not the Glass we know and (at least in my case) don't love; it's musical, it's melodic, and it's, frankly, enjoyable. But it's not too enjoyable—it's no John Williams score—and rightfully so, because the music sets the tone of The Hours in a way the dialogue can't. And while the appropriate music is barely noticeable if you're not listening for it, inappropriate music could destroy what the story, the acting, and the cinematography have all worked so hard to create. Glass' score seamlessly integrates itself into the movie in such a way that one would be unimaginable without the other, unobtrusive yet essential.
As with the video transfer, the audio track is high quality, letting the music work its magic. The dialogue is crisp, the bass is full, and the volume levels ensure you won't be distracted by inaudible speech or deafening sound effects and music.
Last, but certainly not least, we come to the extras. This disc offers two audio commentaries:
• Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore: Mildly
entertaining and informative, this commentary track would have been much more so
if the three actors had been in a room together. Instead the track is obviously
pieced together from three separate recordings, so they don't have a chance to
feed off each other or interact in any way.
Also included are the following featurettes, all of which I found enlightening and well worth my time to watch:
• "Filmmakers Introduction" with Stephen Daldry (2
Finally, we are provided a theatrical trailer and a preview of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
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.
Not for the faint of heart, the easily swayed, or the strictly Pollyanna among us, The Hours is about finding peace and happiness, even if they lie in one's own death. Virginia Woolf's suicide is accepted as a sane and rational choice made in the face of untreatable mental illness. She knew she could not find happiness in life, and she knew her life was stopping her husband from finding happiness, so she chose to kill herself. The Hours does not glorify the decision, nor does it celebrate it, but it does understand it. And many will disagree, believing suicide should be demonized and discouraged at every turn.
Loving this movie as I do, I wish I could recommend it without reservation to all, but I know better. I know some will find it slow, too character focused, and plotless, but I urge you to give it a chance. The Hours contains a powerful story, a jarring message, immense beauty, and a perspective that everyone should at least try to understand.
If you've seen the movie and enjoyed it, then I wholeheartedly advise you to buy this disc. The quality of the transfers and the extras backs me up.
For blurring the line between life and death, and for suggesting that the choice between the two is not always the obvious one we've been taught it is, The Hours is hereby cleared of all charges, its death sentence revoked.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore
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