Stephen Daldry’s ‘The Hours’ Indicts Patriarchal Oppressions

The Hours is about passion, depression, and obsession, and how women are shaped, hindered, and sometimes inspired by masculine structures and expectations.

The Hours
Stephen Daldry
25 December 2002 (US)

“You know, when you understand that a novel you wrote will be made into a movie, you do think, ‘But what about all the interiority?’ As a novelist, you can go into people’s minds. You can shoot to their past for a moment and get back to their present, so the present is infected by the past in a way you can’t really do in a movie without cumbersome, silly flashbacks. And what I learned seeing the movie is that yes, you do lose that ability to go into people’s minds, but you gain Meryl Streep’s ability to separate an egg in a way that tells you everything you need to know about who that person is at that point, and who that person was before that point.”

Novelist and screenwriter Michael Cunningham’s above observation – on the commentary track on Paramount’s elegant DVD of The Hours – tells much about the conversation he will go on to share with director Stephen Daldry. “I think,” responds Daldry, “that’s what we certainly tried to do a lot was come up with a behavioral language that would reveal character as much as dialogue.” Their exchange over the course of the film is instructive and poetic, as each man endeavors to explain his own creative processes and his admiration for the other’s.

Stretching all of these processes in multiple directions, The Hours tells three primary stories intertwined (and others emerge within these). The first foundational story belongs to Virginia Woolf. The Hours begins with her suicide and note to her husband Leonard: “I begin to hear voices,” she writes and reads in voiceover, “and I can’t concentrate. So, I am doing what seems to be the best thing to do.” These first moments, tragic and traumatic, are also striking and oddly seductive, drawing you immediately into the details of despair and yearning.

And yet, the director notes immediately the small problem of it in a way that marks his precision and dedication to the project: “Filmmakers often don’t have the exact choices that they would like or indeed, if you’re dealing with real people, that would be historically accurate. As we all know, Virginia Woolf actually killed herself in March, but because of actual availability, we had to shoot in May-June.”

While The Hours may now be best known for Nicole Kidman’s Oscar for Best Actress (and, perhaps, the prosthetic nose she wore to transform her into Woolf), it is, more importantly, a film about passion, depression, and obsession, and especially, the ways that women are shaped, hindered, and occasionally even inspired by the masculine structures and expectations that engulf them. Scripted by David Hare, the film is structured according to meticulous rhythms and lived-in images: the characters’ homes, for instance, are cluttered with materials – books, pictures, and personal mementos.

The film translates the book’s complex organization – three women in different times and places, each struggling with depression and desire – as a kind of puzzle, each piece interlocking. Essentially three separate films, The Hours deploys clever matching shots to shift between them and Philip Glass’ famously inexorable scoring to underline thematic fluidity.

Woolf kills herself while residing in the London suburb of Richmond in 1941. As The Hours begins, she writes the note for Leonard (Stephen Dillane), dons her plaid wool coat, then walks down to the river, where she puts stones in her pocket and wades in. From here, the film cuts back in time to 1923, as Woolf is writing Mrs. Dalloway, feeling intimidated by her maids, visiting with her sister Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson) and her children, and each day confronting her own evolving madness.

The second story takes place in 1951 Los Angeles, where housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is reading Mrs. Dalloway and, in the process, facing doubts concerning her marriage to gentle Dan (John C. Reilly), for whom she and her young son (Jack Rovello) endeavor to make a birthday cake. This section begins as Dan buys his wife flowers, a sincere effort to nudge her mood: he sees her melancholy but has no idea how to help or even talk with her. He heads off to work for the day, but not before reminding her how much he’s looking forward to their perfect birthday dinner that evening – a reminder, it seems, that she needs to be there when he gets back. For her part, Laura is seriously considering Clarissa Dalloway’s example, planning not only her husband’s party but also her suicide.

The third piece, set in 2001 Manhattan, follows Clarissa Vaughn (Streep) as she puts together a party for ex-lover Richard (Ed Harris), a prize-winning novelist now dying of AIDS-related illness (who lives, Daldry notes, in a “very much darker, more industrial world” than Clarissa’s bourgeois existence). Helped by her infinitely patient life partner, Sally (Allison Janney), and their daughter Julia (Claire Danes), Clarissa bustles about her day, resisting the fact that Richard is coming to grips with his own devastating grief, his regrets and needs, in ways that will necessarily leave her out.

As this synopsis suggests, much of The Hours is about grief, focused through the prism of women feeling oppressed by culturally ordained and personally absorbed obligations. Laura’s neighbor, Kitty (luminous Toni Collette), confesses that she has a growth in her uterus. Looking at Laura’s son and current pregnancy, she frets that you can’t “call yourself a woman until you’re a mother.” With this, Laura’s sense of guilt (why is she depressed when she has everything Kitty wants?) and lesbian desire overwhelm her: she kisses Kitty, who panics, reverting to housewifey chitchat and hustling out the door.

Laura’s desperation and isolation recall Woolf’s, of course. Neither woman can express her sexual yearning outright, and neither can resolve her situation to please herself and those who love her. Laura, for all her efforts to kill herself (which results in a bizarrely over-the-top scene wherein she imagines her own Woolf-inspired drowning), eventually leaves her family in her own way.

This links her with Virginia, whose fate is fixed in history. Even she seems resigned to it before it occurs, telling Leonard that she can no longer bear living in virtual seclusion outside the city, despite his best intentions to protect her. “I’m dying in this town,” she informs him. “I alone wrestle in the dark, in the deep dark… Only I can understand my own condition.”

The Hours seems appropriately undecided as to whether it believes her. Its women subjects are, on one hand, unfathomable prisms of sentiment and sensation, rendered in brilliant performances (all the talk about Kidman’s losing herself in this role is true – she’s transformed). But the women are also functions of a coherent narrative, made comprehensible as embodiments of historical patterns.

These issues are addressed in the DVD’s Special Features, which include featurettes on “Three Women” (background on the central characters), “The Life and Times of Virginia Woolf,” “The Music of The Hours,” and “The Lives of Mrs. Dalloway,” which grants the male filmmakers – Cunningham, Hare, and Daldry — a chance to discuss their love for Woolf, her extraordinary character, and “women.”

The Hours‘ second commentary track features Kidman, Streep, and Moore’s observations on their characters, affection for their collaborators (including the director and writers, as well as costume designer Ann Roth), and the filmmaking process, for which they all feel expected emotional connections (some of their remarks will be familiar, for anyone who read or heard interviews the three actors conducted during the film’s promotion – Kidman’s decision to do her own, literal writing for close-up shots of Woolf’s busy hands, for instance, or Moore’s suggestion that Laura’s strongest connection is, sadly and ardently, to Mrs. Dalloway, a character in a book).

In its careful attention to repetition and history, anguish, and longing, The Hours indicts, rather broadly and unimaginatively, patriarchal oppressions, especially as these lead to diagnoses of individual deviance, say, lesbianism. As sensitive as Leonard, Richard, or even Dan might strive to be, he can’t understand it: women’s experience remains mysterious. This seems vaguely reductive, suggesting that political oppression creates an insular emotional world where culpability and generosity may never be known.

Or maybe not. The Hours‘ single wholly selfless gesture is made by Julia, the youngest character, the girl who may, after all the stress and difficulty she witnesses, embody or affect a changed future. Near the film’s end, she embraces Richard’s elderly mother, suffering unspeakable guilt for choices she’s made in the past, and at that moment, feeling judged by the distraught Clarissa. In this moment, Julia acknowledges the older woman’s otherness and the unfathomable nature of her decisions and asks nothing in return. Coming after “hours” of interiority, it’s a splendidly, surprisingly expansive sign of acceptance and imagination.