Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, 2002

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  1. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a work of stream-of-consciousness writing that echoes and pays homage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. It ties together storylines from 1923 (Virginia Woolf writing Mrs. Dalloway, which would be published in 1925), from 1941 (Woolf at the end of her life), from 1951 (Laura Brown, an unhappily married post-WWII housewife), and from the 1990s (Clarissa Vaughn, a book publisher). The lives of these three women echo each other in ways that outline the themes Cunningham focuses on: the function of art in life, the function of the past in the present, and what the function of regret might ultimately be. The book begins with Woolf committing suicide, as she did on March 28, 1941. Her suicide note to her husband, heartbreakingly beautiful, is included. Art, life, the past, and regret are all caught up in this brief note. The quick jump to Clarissa Vaughn’s modern-day love affair with the city of New York feels somewhat jarring at first, but quickly Cunningham begins to build in observations about life, art, regret, love. Even in this brief excerpt at the start of the novel, the audience is invited into a complicated conversation about decisions and their consequences.
  2. Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, with screenplay by David Hare based on Cunningham’s novel, is a beautiful meditation on the lives of three women and how they affect one another, directly and indirectly. Woolf, Brown, and Vaughn are brought to remarkable life by Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, respectively. The script is strong and the film is beautifully shot and seamlessly edited to weave the three narratives together, with visual thematic elements uniting the women (cracking eggs, buying flowers, shutting off alarm clocks) – but none of this would have had as great an impact without the performances given by these talented actors. The interwoven past and present are viewed in real time in the film, echoing the theme of past-in-present, and Daldry skillfully shows the impact art has on life by his repeated visual cues and by the presence of Mrs. Dalloway – her name, the published book, the manuscript – in all the storylines spanning most of the 20th century.
  3. Daldry’s The Hours is a skilled and ultimately successful adaptation of Cunningham’s novel. The three main storylines are interwoven so well that the audience never gives thought to what an effort that represents. As noted above, the cast is the deepest strength of this movie however. Not just the leads, but the supporting cast are uniformly strong, and read almost like a “who’s who” of early-21st-century Hollywood. Casting so many familiar names is a strategy that ultimately works for Daldry, as the audience gets caught up in the pleasure of seeing these professionals work together in-the-moment. It can be argued that this eases the audience – like the proverbial spoonful of sugar – into some of the more difficult themes of the film, such as the “rightness” of decisions with harsh consequences (suicide, family abandonment) and the deep scars that regret can leave in one’s life (Clarissa’s seeming inability to move beyond her love affair with Richard more than half her life ago). Whatever the casting strategy was ultimately meant to accomplish, it makes for an engrossing and engaging film-viewing experience.
  4. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Salon.com, Dec. 2002
    Salon’s extended take on the film (and to some degree Cunningham’s novel) has a lot that is interesting to say about the pedigree of the film and most especially the casting in the three main female roles.

    “The Hidden Misogynies of Queering “light”: the case of The Hours” Queerforum.org, 2004
    Speaking to queer theory, this essay primarily concerns itself with some failings of Cunningham’s novel, though it also praises Daldry’s film for correcting some of them.

    “Virginia Woolf cannot be held responsible” World Socialist Web Site, Jan. 2003
    Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, was well-known as a Fabian socialist and publisher, and Virginia Woolf often wrote critical social commentary. The World Socialist Web Site hates Daldry’s The Hours for ignoring these facts, and excoriates the film broadly for being “[…]a privileged layer scrutinizing and being scrutinized.”Posts tagged “The Hours” on tumblr.com Ongoing
    Not always specific to the film, but Tumblr is a great (and messy) repository of images and reactions.

    “The Hours: Stephen Daldry and Nicole Kidman” Video interview, Special Broadcast Services, Australia, Feb. 2003
    This brief interview was illuminating for insight into Kidman’s “becoming” Virginia Woolf for the role and for Daldry’s words about what the film means, for him. He states it is about the difficult choices people need to make “in order to live.”

  5. There are certain Hollywood movies released every year – usually late in the year – that are considered Oscar contenders before they are even in front of audience. It can be argued that by casting a wide range of “Oscar-friendly” well-known actors in The Hours, Stephen Daldry is explicitly using the comfort of the known to make some of the difficult themes in his film more palatable. In his interview with Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) in Australia, Stephen Daldry notes that his film – and the book on which it is based – are about the “hard choices” that people have to make in order to live. And it is true that suicide and family abandonment are harsh decisions, moments of total abdication of societal responsibility. In the face of past regrets, current troubles, and the power of art to move audiences in positive and negative directions, Daldry’s known and beloved cast are drawn into conversation with the audience. There is the text of the film – the dialogue, the music, the images on the screen – and there is the paratext – the perceived frame in which the audience views the images. The paratext includes cues coming from the environment where the movie is seen (a megaplex? an arthouse? a couch in front of a TV with Netflix streaming?) and the fact that audiences see actors over and over again to the point of feeling a relationship with the actor that informs each character that actor portrays. When a movie-goer sees a cast list like one for The Hours, there are assumptions that can be made. Meryl Streep herself is enough of a cultural signifier for “quality cinema” that she is referenced (along with Vanessa Redgrave) in Cunningham’s novel, and is compared to an angel who stops in on earth only briefly before she “resumed her place in the ether.” Casting choices inform audience perception, and review after review of The Hours gushes about the performances in the film. By wrapping up suicide, the ravages of AIDS, a lifetime of romantic regrets, the abandonment of a family including a newborn infant …all inside a package full of an “Oscar-worthy” cast, Stephen Daldry’s film adds a new layer of meaning to Michael Cunningham’s novel by giving it the “angelic” touch of Hollywood pedigree.

3 thoughts on “Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, 2002

  1. I am commenting on my own blog post in order to editorialize in a way I didn’t think would be appropriate for the actual assignment itself.

    When I first read the World Socialist’s angry review of The Hours, I laughed a little. It’s true, the movie really is – when you step back from it – a little heavy on “privileged white people with problems.” I do not mean to denigrate the very real, very devastating effects of mental illness, and suicide is no laughing matter. I enjoyed The Hours. At the same time I recognized that part of my enjoyment comes from being an educated middle-class privileged American white woman Of A Certain Age, and thus almost entirely The Perfect Target Audience for this film.

    I wrote my little bit and slept on it before posting it. And overnight, the horrible shooting in Charleston, South Carolina happened.

    I read over the whole thing and felt it all sounded hollow and ridiculous in the face of current events.

    Honestly, I do think that academia mostly gets a bad rap…but in the face of the immediacy of our news cycle now (something that wasn’t the case the first time I tried this undergraduate business), as we watch suspects hunted down in real time and start watching “analysis” of the event begin before the facts are all known – I admit I found something deeply absurd and pointless about writing this review about a movie about privileged white people and their problems.

    The liberal arts stand on a proud foundation of building whole minds in people, ultimately contributing to a vibrant, responsive society. I understand there is every place for the exercise of examining the minutiae of the task at hand. But in the light of the current big picture, I hope we are all able to step back and do a little deep breathing, and engage in some perspective-taking.

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  2. I appreciate your reflections in your comment on your entry. You’re right: a response to Charleston, in the context of what we’re doing here, seems necessary. Joseph Byrne. ENGL329B.

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