June 2, 2011

Queer Review: The Hours (2002)

The Hours
Director: Stephen Daldry
Writer: David Hare. Based upon the novel by Michael Cunningham.
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Stephen Dillane, Miranda Richardson, John C. Reilly, Ed Harris, Toni Collette

The Hours uses a premise that is so simple it might be considered a gimmick - tell the story of three different women of the course of a single day. This is similar to the premise of Mrs. Dalloway, from which Michael Cunningham got the inspiration to write his novel that the film was based upon. When I first saw The Hours in the theater, it was thanks to a literature professor who had assigned viewing the film as an extra credit for the class I was taking. I loved it so much, that I went back and viewed it a second time the next day. While viewing it recently in order to write this review, it's flaws were a little more apparent to me, but I would still label it a personal favorite of mine.

Three women from different time periods, struggle with depression, suicidal thoughts, and various other issues during the course of a single day.

In the 1920's Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), finds herself beginning a new book, which will become Mrs. Dalloway while the simple tasks she must deal with, such as managing the household servants, nearly prove overwhelming. Woolf also finds herself wishing desperatly to move back to London, a move staunchly opposed by her husband, Leonard Woolf (Stephen Dillane).

The second story takes place in the 1950's and is about a repressed housewife, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) who struggles with raising her son and the task of preparing a party for her husband. While reading Mrs. Dalloway she finds herself awakened to various possibilities to her life, including the possibility of suicide.

The third story features an New York City editor, Clarissa Vaughan, who represents a modern day Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa is throwing a party for her gay friend Richard (Ed Harris), who won a prestigious prize for his poetry, yet is dying of AIDS. During these preparations, she finds herself reflecting on the choices she made and the path that led to where she is now.

The Queering
I must admit to having tried to read Mrs. Dalloway and also, to having failed in that endeavor. While both the book and the film version of The Hours revolve around the themes of Mrs. Dalloway, there is no requirement that one has read Woolf's novel in order to understand The Hours. What is necessary that one be able to understand the characters and also be willing to invest some effort into understanding their circumstances. Those who are unwilling to make those leaps, will find themselves watching a film featuring a bunch of unsympathetic, whiny characters.

The title The Hours comes from a working title for Mrs. Dalloway and is crucial to understanding the main themes of the film. This is not a movie about big life changing events, it is about the little moments we struggle through each day. That is, the hours each of the main characters must endure in order just to survive.

There are no traditional villains here, merely minute misunderstandings that have come together to form barriers more impenetrable then concrete walls. Each of the three leads suffer from not being able to express themselves entirely, either publicly or to their romantic partners. Woolf and Brown because they lived in an age when female sexuality, and in particularly lesbianism, was taboo, and Vaughn for more complicated reasons that are never quite made clear.

One complaint that could be leveled against The Hours is that the characters very rarely speak the way ordinary people do, but rather in a poetic and generally more insightful fashion than the average person. This may or may not be a hindrance, depending on ones philosophy of art and how closely one feels dramatic productions should hue to naturalistic stylings.

Director Stephen Daldry makes good use of technical elements (cinematography, editing, music) to blend the three stories seamlessly together to make it feel as if though one was watching one singular narrative, rather than three disconnected ones. One character, who provides a concrete connection between the last two stories helps immensely. Speaking of the technical side, they are all superbly executed overall. The strongest parts of The Hours are the writing and the acting, although on my most recent viewing, I was a bit surprised to find myself noting just how good the cinematography was.

I have come across quiet a few people who view The Hours as nothing more than pretentious, depressing, and boring, Oscar bait. Obviously, I could not disagree with that point of view more. My opinion of The Hours is that it is a superlative motion picture and a defining moment in film for queer cinema.

I did say this was one of my favorites, right? Highly recommended.

The Rating


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