The hours

January, 2003, Drama

Directed by:Stephen Daldry

Starring:Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Ed Harris

The Hours

The solitary torment of a depressed mind eludes any attempt to make it apprehensible to those who have not experienced it.

From Lost In America by Sherwin Nuland

A few weeks ago I saw The Pianist, and opened my thoughts on it by asking rhetorically whether one could really review such a film because of its subject matter. Hours can readily be reviewed, but I doubt its subject can be fully appreciated by anyone who has not suffered the condition Dr. Nuland so chillingly describes.

In a series of tightly interlocked sequences, Hours fictionally explores the life of Virginia Wolf (played by a virtually unrecognizable Nicole Kidman) as she labors torturously on her novel "Mrs. Dalloway" in the 1920's, while simultaneously presenting to the audience the stories of a severely depressed 1950's Los Angles housewife (Julianne Moore) and the brittle relationship of a contemporary couple, (Meryl Streep and Ed Harris) in New York City.

 The battles with depression which haunted Wolf during much of her adult life, (and which lead to her suicide some 18 years after completing "Dalloway") seem eerily reborn in Moore's agonized suburban housewife who has no apparent connection to the authoress beyond an appreciation for her novel. But there is a profound linkage between this story and the one which unfolds in the present, although its source and significance do not appear until the movie reaches its measured, claustrophobic climax. 

 Moore's suffocating homemaker is the linchpin of this film, and her performance here manages to equal, if not surpass, her remarkable work in Far From Heaven. She's a pregnant Mom with a precocious pre-schooler and a hardworking husband who has no idea that his wife is suffering from a depression that makes the simplest household task an unbearable burden. Moore's pinched expression and anemic physical appearance embody the horror of what Nuland describes as an "all pervasive fog" with its capacity "to suffocate undisturbed thought in its own terrifying, familiar way." 

As she did so impressively in Safe some years ago, Moore conveys the terror of being trapped in a life which she seems to have chosen, but from which she cannot now escape; her dull eyes and stiffened posture give the impression she's a walking contusion, incapable of handling even the slightest pressure. Her son's adoration terrifies her, and her husband's stumbling efforts to convey his feelings only cause him to appear loutish. Is escape possible? Is it even an option? As we wait to see the outcome of Moore's dilemma, we're brought back and forth in time to Wolf's battles with her demons, and to the confrontation between Harris' illness and its impact on Streep, who cannot accept his terminal condition and in so doing, battles with him for control over his very life.

This film is an ode to individualism, yet it's philosophical accomplishments pale in comparison to its cinematic ones. The subtext of The Hours revolves around the choices people make about the length and quality of their lives, and the values they use to justify their decisions. These musings on personal autonomy are the least satisfactory element in a splendidly acted film and audiences should think twice about the appropriateness of the characters' choices. Wolf's final declaration that, after one faces life fully and honestly, one should "close the door on it" is far too facile a resolution for the events that precede it, but there is no denying the power of this somber  and often ponderous examination of a misunderstood and frighteningly destructive mental condition. 

Acclaimed English playwright Sir David Hare has adapted Michael Cunningham's complex novel of the same name with surprising clarity: Stephen Daldry, a prominent director of London theater and recent film convert to film, (Billy Elliot) does a competent but unspectacular job of mounting the principal scenes. There's more than a bit of staginess in his use of the camera, but his work with an impressive cast offsets this shortcoming. Daldry steers Kidman through the finest performance of her career. Streep and Harris are also fine in far less significant roles, but it's Moore who dominates the film's action, and she punctuates it with an extended soliloquy near the end that is both exquisitely painful and heartbreakingly honest. The supporting players are wonderfully cast, with Miranda Richardson doing an especially winning job as Wolf's outgoing but emotionally withholding sister.  Streep's final, wordless scene, (in which she simply reacts to a story told by Harris' mother) is an absolute gem, and ought to be studied by any aspiring actor. 

In something of an aberration, mainline Hollywood films have deviated from their obsessive preoccupation with male domination in the past few months by offering audiences a spate of films featuring powerful performances by a host of established actresses; the three actresses in this film along with Selma Hayek in Frida, Emily Watson in Punch Drunk Love, Edie Falco in Sunshine State and Moore again in Far From Heaven to name just a few. The Oscars this year should be a real horse race, and for once, the Best Actress award will surely be selected from among a group of real thoroughbreds.

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