Michael Cunningham’s best-selling novel The Hours won him a Pulitzer prize in 1998 and inspired director Stephen Daldry’s multiple award-winning film of the same name in 2002. Cunningham’s story concerns three women who step out individually on a June morning in 1923, 1941 and 2001 and experience through different circumstances what it is to “look life in the face”. The Hours is a tribute to stream of consciousness feminist icon Virginia Woolf and her slim, watertight novel Mrs Dalloway.
Woolf’s truly brilliant narrative traces upper-class socialite Clarissa Dalloway’s choices or lack of them – in a single day. A plethora of Clarissa’s casual acquaintances, friends and lovers provides the socio-economic context and the hypocrisy of British society post World War I.
Unknown personally to Clarissa is the artist Septimus Warren-Smith, who has returned from the war distracted and delusional. The news of his suicide sends more than a ripple through the placid waters of Clarissa’s life and leaves her teetering at the edge of an existential crisis – something that had been eddying about her all through that fateful June day.
“A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop every day in corruption, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.
But this young man who had killed himself–had he plunged holding his treasure? “If it were now to die, ‘twere now to be most happy,” she had said to herself once, coming down in white.”— Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf.
Woolf’s keen writing threads present occurrences with character introspections both casual and caustic. Readers must pursue characters in flux through warren after warren. This is fascinating, but there is truth in David Lodge’s comment, “We do not always think of eternity while serving potatoes; sometimes we just think of serving potatoes. Virginia Woolf’s characters never do.”
Cunningham’s style may be forged on Woolf’s anvil but, for better or for worse, it never makes the same demands on its reader.
“On the other side is London, and all London implies about freedom, about kisses, about the possibilities of art and the sly dark glitter of madness…death is the city below, which Mrs. Dalloway loves and fears and which she wants in some way to walk into so deeply she will never find her way back again.”— The Hours, Michael Cunningham.
There is also a deliberate interweaving that becomes annoying to keep up with. Meryl Streep, who plays a lead role in the film, is actually mentioned in the novel as a film celebrity. No less precious is the fact that Streep should be named Clarissa and half cruelly called Mrs Dalloway by her one-time lover. All this begs the question – would the story hold if Woolf, even in her body snatched form, had not been part of it?
Arguably, Cunningham’s story is an all girls’ affair. Women are resuscitated only by each other – emotionally, intellectually and physically. Men appear inept and must somehow be speedily dispatched. This is particularly disappointing for a film with such competent male talent.
Stephen Dillane plays Leonard Woolf, a stern yet deeply concerned caregiver trying desperately to keep up with the fits, moods and suicidal attempts of his wife Virginia (Nicole Kidman). Although not part of Cunningham’s story, David Hare’s screenplay includes a scene on Richmond railway station after Virginia has made an escape from the Woolf home. That well-appointed mansion serves only as a “suffocating anaesthetic” and she yearns for the “jolt” of London. Offset against Kidman’s most vocal and vein-swelling moment (one almost expects her absurdly prosthetic nose to fall off) is Dillane’s superbly understated and unfortunately underrated performance as the exasperated and finally exhausted husband.
John C Reilly plays Dan, the all-American soldier back from the war. Besotted with his wife Laura (Julianne Moore) and an affectionate father to their son, Richie, Dan is a comfy meal ticket, completely unaware that Laura is champing at the bit. Reilly is cast in an appearance more than a performance and is simply shortchanged.
The ballyhoo is provided by Richard the boo-hoo boy, played by Ed Harris. Abandoned by his mother, Richard has grown into a controversial writer who can’t get over any of his lovers, hears voices and now has AIDS. Harris is gone too soon.
The Hours is still a good enough watch, though, when seen for itself. In its free-the-world-of-men agenda, the stories of Virginia, Laura and Clarissa are visually and tonally reflective of each other. The film is handsome and through skillful editing and transitions, a viewer travels smoothly across cities and time. The evocative music of Philip Glass is something that no text can substitute.
But as Brenda R Silver, an English professor at Dartmouth and the author of Virginia Woolf Icon (University of Chicago, 1999), says, “If you want to read Virginia Woolf, then read Virginia Woolf.”