Cinema Signal:

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The Hours by Michael Cunningham

. "The Hours"

This is a three-fer: three stories in different time periods, always a challenge to clarity. The three are dense with complex characters, some of whom are high achievers, peaked by no less than Virginia Woolf. There appears to be a connection between these stories, such as how lives are influenced by the power of a book and the questions it raises about life and death. The characters, as written, are fascinating and mysterious but the real draw to this film enterprise is the cast and the awesome display of acting talent. This picture will be a major contributor to the award nomination scorecard on both sides of the gender aisle.

The genesis of the stories is the one in which we see the struggles, both with sanity and the creative process, that Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) went through, specifically in the 1925 creation of her "Mrs. Dalloway". Based on the Michael Cunningham novel, the subsequent stories are set in the 50s, the late 90s, with a prologue suggesting the circumstances of Virginia Woolf's 1941 suicide, all of which results in a bit of storytelling acrobatics via the editing bench whilst defying anyone who isn't familiar with the source material to fully comprehend, let alone appreciate, the relationships and the literary synergy amongst them that is being attempted in movie terms.

As the film translates it from the literary sources, in 1920s London, Woolf keeps her lesbian desires properly (for the times) harnessed. In return for that propriety she has rejected one ardent suitor and has married the colorless, steadfast Leonard Woolf (Stephen Dillane), an upperclass book publisher. What price sublimation. The effect appears to be repression and mood swings influencing her creative process. She declares to Woolf that she's got the opening line -- a not insignificant milestone in the birthing of a novel. She writes, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself" and is off on her creative journey.

The 1950s episode gets really confusing and threatens the entirety with a melodramatic contrivance of a plot that might have been cut out of "Pleasantville". Here we have the Browns, perfect husband Dan Brown (John C. Reilly), troubled wife Laura (who has been reading "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf) (Julianne Moore) and their also troubled, overly-attached-to-his-mother, over-sensitive son
Read a CNN report on author Michael Cunningham and how he came to write "The Hours" and win the PEN/Faulkner Award.
Richard who seems mesmerized by fears for his mother and what she might do, to him, to the family, to herself. Somehow, this little boy with big dependent eyes is on a wavelength with mom that defies us, the audience, until the plot unwinds nearly to its climax; but what we do get from the understated Laura is that she can't stop reading "Mrs. Dallaway" and it's putting her on a path to making some drastic life changes. Of all the stories, this is the tonal discord. Laura's behaviors are motivationally obscure, if not bewildering; the style is unreasonably melodramatic; and it messes up the film's integrity.

In the third story, set much closer to our own time and full of familiar details and pacing, book editor Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) is the care-giver of ex-lover and current AIDS patient, Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Brown (Ed Harris), crumbling physically before our eyes in a warren of a room in a grafitti endowed commercial building in Manhattan. Clarissa's plans for a party to celebrate his literary victory as much to prop up his weakening desire to live, is the context of the developments. Clarissa is living the modern lesbian life now with her sensitive, perfectly understanding significant other, Sally (Allison Janney). Daughter Julia (Claire Danes) shows up in time for the festivities, as well. The problem with the party is the question about the honoree's inclination not to show up.

In these days when every mature actress who appears on a talk show or interview complains of the dearth of interesting parts for women of their years we have in this script by David Hare as perfect an assemblage of parts as any six women could expect in one piece. It is to the great credit of the filmmakers to have put these particular six together in it (as well as some damn fine male performances, as well)... all of them actors who fully understand and give life to literature in their distinct and fullsome way. This is not a perfect film, depending more than it should on the literary fare that it springs from, but it is not to be missed by anyone who deeply enjoys exquisite performance.

The score, by Philip Glass, ("Naqoyqatsi", "Koyaanisqatsi") intrusively points out all the moments when you're supposed to be feeling some emotion, sparing no opportunity to shove it into the sphere of out and out melodrama, like a silent movie accompaniment. A little of it would be evocative but Glass seems to revel in his opportunity to burn his grinding theme into your consciousness, throwing subtlety to the wind. Perhaps it was in the name of period style, an ill-considered choice.

The cinematography, another contribution of award level quality, is by Seamus McGarvey ("Wit", "Enigma", "High Fidelity").

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack Album


Author's note: This review is based solely on the movie -- as a movie -- and not on the literary works that inspired it.

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Site rating: 8

My argument with my husband after viewing this movie is that I do not think Streep was truly homosexual, nor was Harris. I believe Harris was afraid of Streep leaving him as his mother did and therefore left her for a man. As stated in the movie, Streep's relationship was for ease which I interpreted as that Richard was her only love, therefore not wanting to be with another man.

                                                       ~~ N. O.
[Editor's note: This reader wants other thoughts on this question.]

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Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, circa 1925

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