Review: The Hours

by Jake Sproul

Rating: (out of )

Like with all hyped movies, some of the hype is rightly deserved, while other is not. It is true that the performances of The Hours are some of the best we have seen this year. However, the screenplay which has been nominated for an Oscar has some serious flaws which...for lack of a better word, cheapen, certain aspects of the motion picture that most surely could have been crafted with more class and utilizing less tired filmmaker tricks as The Hours does. Fortunately, its the performances we remember when we leave the theater, rather than some of the holes in the script, which is the true leg up the movie needed to become a success. With the win at the Golden Globes, and its Oscar buzz circulating, most of you likely know the plot of The Hours, but for those who don’t, its a lot easier to understand when watching the movie than it will be to try and decipher my explanation. The film centers around three main characters, Clarissa Vaughn, Laura Brown, and Virginia Woolf. These three characters and linked through Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf herself, who is having a hard time writing Mrs. Dalloway. Julianne Moore plays Laura Brown, a 1950’s house wife who is reading Mrs. Dalloway, and like Virginia and Mrs. Dalloway, is trapped by life and her mind is filled with thoughts of suicide. Finally, Clarissa Vaughn is a hurried modern day New York lesbian. These three characters are all related through one book, and one question, “what does it mean to be alive?”

From what I have heard, David Hare, the screenwriter for The Hours, was very faithful in his adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s award winning novel of the same name. Yet as I have preached many a time, movies and novels are very different mediums and should be treated as such. Faithful adaptations often times loose something in the translation. For example, The Hours lesbianism background doesn’t fit the flow of the film. Clarissa is a lesbian and both Virginia and Laura have a passionate kiss with another woman. This streak of bisexuality of lesbianism, whatever it is, has no place in the movie as it is neither explained nor dealt with in the movie.

It has been said that suicide is one of the most selfish acts a person can do, and when dealing with suicide in the movie, a director and screenwriter must walk a tight rope. One slip of dialogue or action can cause our sympathy for a character to diminish. As a whole, this aspect of the film was one of the most competently done. Two of the main characters seriously deal with suicide themselves, Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf. The story was able to use mental illness as reason for Virginia, and due to smart dialogue was able to convince the audience of Virginia’s state of mind. As for Laura Brown, her surroundings were so nicely captured that they themselves represent why Laura felt the way she did. The story does not resort to silly cliches like spousal abuse...etc. The third character of Clarissa Vaughn doesn’t deal directly with suicide, but through a very close friend who is dying of AIDS (Ed Harris). His harsh criticism of her life and life itself casts a shadow of meaninglessness onto her world.

If you break it down, the story of The Hours can be broken down into two parts. The intertwining tale of the three characters and their connection through the novel of Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway, and the individual character’s struggles and their dealings with the ultimate theme of the movie, the question “What does it mean to be real?” By far, the second part of the story is the best. The searches for answers by the individual characters is fascinating at a minimum. I see how the use of intertwining story lines was necessary to show cohesion and clarity, yet Stephan Daldry takes it a bit too far, attempting to make the characters alike utilizing camera tricks and quick editing, a major flaw when the movie’s basis in individual character development. To his credit, he gets the job done, showing the audience the connections he intended them to see, but at what price? In a great film, one will see lots of love carefully dispersed throughout all aspects of the movie, in a good movie, lots of love is unevenly distributed. And that is all The Hours ends up being, unevenly dispersed, thusly becoming simply a good movie. Of course who am I to judge the adaptation of this movie from Michael Cunningham’s novel to David Hare’s screenplay, as I have yet to read the novel. When the Academy Award nominations were announced, it was clear that one of the strongest categories of the night was going to be the award for best Adapted Screenplay. (The category is so tough in fact, Alexander Payne’s screenplay for About Schmidt was snubbed.) One of the nominees I thought to possibly be a dark horse was The Hours, but now after seeing the movie, I can say that if it wins the award, it will be one of the Academy’s darkest and most telling moments.

The Hours is a very nicely shot film, yet I did have a few comments regarding some other parts of the technical aspects of the movie. Throughout the entire film, a piano concerto plays, loud during climactic times, and soft during non-climactic moments. I found this to be cheap, as the film shows us the exterior of a thinking movie, yet even The Hours uses music to during climactic moments, making it no better than the run-of-the-mill horror flick. Much has been said about the prosthetic nose Nicole Kidman wears in the movie, but the real achievement in make-up is in the final minutes when the make-up team managed to make the lovely Julianne Moore age to about 75-80ish. While technically this was a superior show of craft, creatively, I found that it did not flow with the film at all, and like the music, a cheap cop-out.

Despite the lacking in the script department, The Hours stays afloat because of three words: Nicole, Julianne, Meryl. These three ladies, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep represent three of Hollywood’s best actresses. The ladies, along with a slew of fantastic supporting cast members, make this movie work. Whenever the film appears to be losing momentum in one way or another, one of these three makes up for it by showcasing their acting chops. The aforementioned supporting cast includes Ed Harris, Jeff Daniels, Toni Colette, Claire Danes, Alison Janney, Stephan Dillane, Miranda Richardson, and John C. Reilly (in his third appearance in a major movie this year, The Good Girl, Gangs of New York, Chicago), and along with the three leads, there is not a moment in this movie where a grade A actor is not on screen. Like in other movies where there are 3+ main characters, also known as an ensemble piece, every person usually has a favorite character. In the case of these three...disturbed characters, its not really a favorite, but more of picking which character you thought to be the most relatable. In this critics opinion, I took a shine to Julianne Moore’s character Laura Brown. As I thought her performance to be the most mature and the character to be the most deftly fleshed out. Even though my favorite has been chosen, I can completely understand differing opinions as every actress is superlative (although, I found Streep’s and Moore’s performance of a slightly higher caliber than that of Kidman’s). So for the sake of statistics, I would say that Meryl Streep’s performance is second, followed by Nicole Kidman’s.

Its always nice to see a movie that allows a moviegoer to free think, make their own conclusions, and explore scenarios through the characters without cliched plot events, but this is ridiculous! While everyone continues to claim the intricacy of The Hours, I just don’t see it. However, I do see the fantastic performances that everyone continues to claim. For those of you who enjoy escapism when they go to the movies, and for those of you who prefer a mainstream movie, The Hours is not for you. The Hours is a movie that poses questions but provides no answers, and oozes a small amount of pomposity in every scene. To close this weak closing paragraph, I will leave you with what I believe to be the most important factor in my decision for what to give The Hours; the performances of this movie, make the movie...if not the whole of acting for 2002.

© 2003 Jacob Sproul

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