Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Hours


I have such exciting news, and not everyday news, but one of a kind news. I have been added to the cast of Celebrity Survivor and will soon be departing for a lovely all expenses paid South Seas holiday. Madame Rose, my manager has arranged it, and says that my appearance fee should more than take care of any cash flow problems around Chateau Maine while I am gone. I trust that the television people have arranged accommodations suitable for a star of my magnitude at an appropriate four star hotel while we are filming. I'm a bit hazy on the concept, but I gather I and other lesser lights will gather on the beach and play Tom Hanks in Castaway during the day; I just hope the hair and make-up team is large enough to keep us looking our best. 

I am, apparently, a late addition to the cast. I am replacing Norma Desmond, who finally did break that hip. The story goes that she fell during her lambada lesson and landed with a crash on that tile floored ballroom of hers. Filming is set to begin within days so I have to pack some heavenly little tropical outfits and be ready to catch a plane to the set tomorrow evening. Having little time to prepare, I decided to let better minds than mine handle the actually packing. Joseph, my manager, says everything I need will be waiting at the airport. In order to stay out of the way, I called up my dear friend, Nurse Lynn, and off we trotted to the cinema. 

We decided, for a farewell choice, to see a film about the journeys of life and so settled on Stephen Daldry's film, The Hours with Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep. It's based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Michael Cunningham and recently won a number of trophies at the Golden Globes, positioning it towards the front of the Oscar race. The original novel is one of those meditations on themes of love, loss, depression, and the meaning of life that make interesting reading but which are regarded as unfilmable. Playwright David Hare was engaged to shape the material into more linear form and the end result is a highly literate film, but one lacking in heart. 

The Hours consists of three interlocking stories about three women, in three different time periods, who end up leading somewhat parallel lives. The film cuts back and forth between them, but never confuses, and all three stories interrelate, often in unexpected ways. In the first, we meet the novelist Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), living a banal existence in suburban London of the 1920s. She's there on the advice of her doctors. She suffers from psychotic depression and her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane) and sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson), are trying to protect her from herself. (They ultimately fail and Woolf committed suicide in 1941 by drowning herself, an episode the film dramatizes in a golden pastoral shimmer). Virginia has an idea for a new novel, which will become Mrs. Dalloway in which she will sum up the whole meaninglessness of existence for a woman in the events of single day. 

The second thread follows Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), trapped in the stifling suburbia of 1951 Los Angeles where women's roles are constrained by children, husbands and an oppressive social order. She doesn't love her husband (John C. Reilly in one of his patented lump roles), feels boxed in by social rituals, and the needs of her young son. On her husband's birthday, she finds herself reading Mrs. Dalloway and her feelings hit a crisis point, especially when her friend and neighbor, Kitty (Toni Collette), reveals her possible cancer diagnosis. Laura must escape and it only remains to be seen what form that escape will take. 

The last thread takes place present day. Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a literary editor in New York, finds herself reenacting Mrs. Dalloway's day as laid out in the novel. They share the same first name and her friend, the poet Richard (Ed Harris), keeps referring to her as that lest we forget the parallel. Richard has won an important poetry prize and Clarissa is organizing a celebratory dinner. Unfortunately, he is in the later stages of HIV disease and in somewhat fragile health, both physical and mental, lashing out at Clarissa, despite all her years of friendship and nursing. Clarissa prepares for the dinner with the help of her lover (Alison Janney) and her daughter (Claire Danes) and we learn some of her romantic past with Richard and with Richard's ex-lover Louis (Jeff Daniels), who turns up for the party. 

The three central performances are pitch perfect. There's not a false emotional note and the three actresses bring richly nuanced characters to the screen. Much of the story and the relationships of the characters come not from exposition, but from silence and from things left unsaid and they are all able to communicate these depths with eyes, body language and small gesture. Meryl Streep is effortless as Clarissa, but we've come to expect no less than that from her so she doesn't impress as much as the other two. Nicole Kidman, almost unrecognizable under a plastic nose, does a wonderful job with Woolf's demons without falling into the trap of neurotic tics that bring down most portrayals of psychosis. Julianne Moore's part isn't as showy, but she has to carry her whole section of the film alone and does so with aplomb. 

The large supporting cast is filled with capable actors, and most are able to bring things up to the level of the leads, especially Stephen Dillane and Miranda Richardson in the Virginia Woolf storyline. Toni Collette also has a memorable scene opposite Julianne Moore where the vulnerabilities of women under the perfect mask come to light. The weakest link comes in the modern day story. Ed Harris has received praise for his dying poet. I found him histrionic, over the top, and out of scale with the rest of the film, making his scenes annoying. I also had difficulty buying either him or Jeff Daniels, two resolutely heterosexual actors, as gay men. (Jeff Daniels' hideous brush cut didn't help - no gay man would have walked out of the hairdresser's looking like that and no stylist would have let him). 

My biggest disappointment in the film was how emotionally unengaging I found it. I wanted to be sucked into the lives of these women and to have my heart wrenched as theirs were being wrenched. Instead, I found most of the emotional climaxes hollow and distancing. This may be something in me rather than in the film craft, but I have a feeling that the fault might lie with David Hare. A previous film of is, Plenty, also with Meryl Streep, treads on similar territory of alienation and the meaninglessness of existence. It too had problems with engaging an audience emotionally and was ultimately a flop. 

The film craft on display is superb. Daldry, who only has one other feature film to his credit, Billy Eliot, continues to grow as a director and shows an innate understanding of small moments and directorial detail. He is ably backed up by his craft departments who recreate the three worlds in rich, visual detail. 

While the film is flawed, it's still worth seeing for some excellent acting performances and for its ability to translate themes of love, loss, alienation and the like into visual cinematic terms. 

Stones in pockets. Bird funeral. Lumpy birthday cake. Bad tempered cook. Live crabs in sink. Bad driving. Symbolic Lincoln Logs. Prosthetic age make-up. Playtex gloves.

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