UK (UK/US) 2002 : Stephen Daldry : 114mins
For his follow-up to Billy Elliot, Daldry tackles Michael Cunningham’s acclaimed novel in which three parallel day-in-the-life stories unfold, each of them closely connected with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. In 1920s England we see the novelist (Nicole Kidman) at work. In 1950s Los Angeles the dissatisfactions of housewife Laura (Julianne Moore) are sharpened by her reading of the book, leading her to the brink of suicide. In present-day Manhattan, meanwhile, editor Clarissa (Meryl Streep) spends her day organising a party for her dying ex-lover Richard (Ed Harris) – just like her fictional counterpart, Clarissa Dalloway.
Daldry alternates between strands, using Philip Glass’s impressive score to bind them together: this is a handsome, well-crafted, conscientious piece of work, an actors’ showcase with meaty roles for the leads backed up by a strong supporting cast. The constant highbrow chatter deals with the Big Themes: life, art, death, pain, happiness, love, etc. David Hare’s screenplay is desperate to be taken seriously – but there doesn’t turn out to be much substance beneath the intellectual veneer and heavy-handed symbolism.
Streep pretty much saves the picture single-handed, though Miranda Richardson does equally well with her much more limited screen-time as Woolf’s no-nonsense sister Vanessa Bell. And while often effective on a scene-by-scene basis, The Hours becomes disappointingly melodramatic as it goes on, culminating in a startlingly cheap ‘twist’ that unexpectedly brings Laura and Clarissa together. Moore sports distracting Beautiful Mind-style OAP make-up, but this is nothing alongside the false nose Kidman wears to impersonate the freakish-looking* Woolf. Despite the strong likelihood of her winning the Best Actress Oscar, she never quite convinces as the real thing – just like The Hours, in fact.
*”.she looks so eerily sensitive that your mind may easily drift to the terrible (true) accounts of how people on the street sometimes laughed at Virginia Woolf – she looked so odd to them.”
Pauline Kael on Vanessa Redgrave 1979 New Yorker review of Michael Apted’s Agatha (1978).
Indeed, watching the Woolf sections of The Hours ‘your mind may easily drift’ to Redgrave herself – who played the title role in the little-seen Mrs Dalloway of 1997, directed by Marleen Gorris and adapted by Eileen Atkins. And Atkins cameos in Daldry’s movie – a rather po-faced concoction compared with the resolutely middlebrow but enjoyable Agatha, which is no less illuminating on suicide, despair and artistic creation.
25th January, 2003
(seen 24th, Warner Village Cheshire Oaks, Ellesmere Port)
by Neil Young