Sunday, September 30, 2012

Biding Time: "The Hours" (2002)

Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep take viewers on one weird misunderstood trip.

The film begins with Virginia Woolf's suicide in 1941, then takes us back to the 1920's, when Woolf (Nicole Kidman) was beginning her novel "Mrs. Dalloway" while living with her husband and angry household staff in a small village in England. Virginia was brought there to impossibly recover from severe mental illness, and she and her husband run a small printing house.

In the 1950's, pregnant and plain Laura (Julianne Moore) dotes incessantly on her young son (an excellent child actor named Jack Rovello), and dutifully waits for her WWII vet husband Dan (John C. Reilly) to bring home the bacon. Laura is reading the novel "Mrs. Dalloway," which mirrors her own unhappy existence.

In 2001, Clarissa (Meryl Streep) is an enabler who is helping her friend Richard (Ed Harris) by throwing him a party to celebrate a literary award. Richard is dying of AIDS, his mind is going, and his pet name for Clarissa is "Mrs. Dalloway," as Clarissa almost seems to be living the tale Woolf is writing.

The connections between the three stories do not consist of just the novel. All three women are dutifully playing out their roles and lives, doing everything for others, and being dangerously selfless. Woolf, in the horrors of mental illness, allows her husband to put her best interests at heart and moves her from London (a city she detested) to Richmond (a city she detests even more). Laura is a complete blank. Her sick friend Kitty (Toni Collette) turns her nose up at the novel she is reading, she just plays the happy mom and wife role, feeling worthless inside. Laura has a great line that since WWII veterans risked their lives overseas, they somehow deserved a wife and a good life when they came home. Clarissa ignores her deteriorating relationship with lover Sally (Allison Janney), and throws herself into the dinky details of Richard's life. They were lovers once, and Richard's ex, Louis (Jeff Daniels), visits Clarissa to stir up some emotions she has been holding back for much too long.

I did not see "The Hours" (the title refers to the time we have between events in our lives, and the time we have left) as a typical "chick flick." If anything, it does not empower women to do much of anything on their own without the help of an evil man. All three stories involve a lesbian subplot, kisses meant to show men the ladies are doin' it for themselves, but all three times nothing seems to change afterward.

I associated with the film through the writing and the mental illness. I do both. Woolf was literally crippled at many points of her life with her illness. It is thought she did not want children (her marriage was one of convenience, she was bisexual) so her illness would not be passed on to her children. This seems more sincere than a rotund former talk show host letting the world know she does not want birth children so she can save the planet from possible alcoholic cancer victims.

I did not feel evil men were putting down these three women at all. They may have been playing the roles assigned, and they are unhappy, but all three find their way out- sadly, through suicide and attempted suicides.

Nicole Kidman (enough about her fake nose already) is very good as Virginia Woolf, although Irish actress Fiona Shaw was born to play the role (they look exactly alike). Julianne Moore has a wonderful tension in her scenes, as her young son's character watches his mother's seemingly flighty behavior and tries to help her. Meryl Streep proves once again that she is one great actress, like her or not. A special mention should go to Ed Harris, who literally looks like he is dying. There are no "Love Story"-type sterile hospital settings here, his seedy apartment reflects his own mental deterioration.

As the three stories intertwine and relate to each other, it still manages to pull out a surprising plot twist near the end. Philip Glass' score is melancholy and meandering, but always there, tying the three stories together. He does not big band it up for the 1950's, or throw in a rap for 2001, it is a wonderful constant. Daldry's seemingly standard direction seems appropriate to these women's standard lives. Who needs flash and zoom when you live from one day to the next without doing anything new or stopping to take notice?

While a few slow spots keep this from being a perfect film, "The Hours" does have strong performances and direction. It ultimately just nudges us and reminds us that hours are all we have left here. (* * * *) out of five stars.