Thursday, February 3, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: The Hours (2002)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Today I'll be talking about the 2002 drama The Hours, directed by Stephen Daldry, starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and in a turn that won her an Oscar, Nicole Kidman.  Based on Michael Cunningham's 1999 novel, the film is a triptych, three separate stories that play out simultaneously before our eyes, connected thematically.  The first takes place in 1923 and concerns English writer Virginia Woolf (Kidman) and her most famous work Mrs. Dalloway, a day-in-the-life story dealing with themes of mental illness, existentialism, and sexual orientation.  Woolf drew from her own experiences and injected much of herself into the titular Dalloway, who questions her life choices throughout.  The second part of the film's story is set in 1951 and centers around Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), an unhappy, pregnant housewife who spends her days caring for her first child without any sort of fulfillment.  Like Mrs. Dalloway (and Woolf herself), Laura is finding herself attracted to women, while also struggling with suicidal thoughts.  The third segment is set in the present day (2001 in this case), and stars Streep as a New York publishing editor possessing many of the same character traits as Mrs. Dalloway, her day mostly spent prepping a literary award party for her friend and former lover Richard (Ed Harris), who is slowly dying of AIDS.  
The film alternates between these three individual days in such a way that we aren't sure at first how they're related (aside from the Julianne Moore character seen reading Woolf's novel).  As someone unfamiliar with Woolf, there were times when I wondered if either or both of the other stories were Woolf's literary creations.  But all three parts deal with women who seem unsatisfied with their domestic lives and long for something different.  In Woolf's case she is stifled living in the suburbs of London and wants to be back in the hustle and bustle of the city (Her husband moved them to Richmond because its quiet simplicity was prescribed as a treatment for her mental health issues).  Laura is profoundly despondent with her life as a housewife/mother and seriously considers suicide but in the end opts to abandon her husband and children (one of whom turns out to be the Ed Harris character) and find happiness on her own.  Streep's character is in a seemingly healthy long-term relationship with Sally (Allison Janney) but the spark she had with Richard isn't there; she appoints herself his caregiver, but all he wants is for her to let him die.  The central thread tying all three stories together is our ongoing search for fulfillment, whatever form that takes.

The three main performances are all very strong, the standout being Kidman's subtle, melancholy take on the flighty Virginia Woolf, a woman who seems totally unsure where and how she fits in, using her writing to create her own sense of purpose.  Moore conveys a consummately lonely woman, enduring each day in wordless desperation.  Streep's Clarissa seems to have her shit together but is actually masking internal turmoil, going about day-to-day tasks to distract from her aching for something new.

I feel like the film offers more richness and depth for those familiar with Woolf's history and work.  I enjoyed it but had trouble connecting the dots until after the fact when I did a little research.  That said, any cinephile should be able to appreciate the performances and themes at play, and Philip Glass's score adds to the ever-present despair and isolation the characters struggle with.  This is a well-made film, if not a terribly exciting one.

I give The Hours *** out of ****.

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