“The Hours,” a new film based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, starts with Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman) leaving her home in Sussex to drown herself in a nearby stream. She marches inexorably towards the water; the camera then cuts to a close-up of her hand scribbling a suicide note with a particularly scratchy and loud fountain pen. Kidman narrates the contents of the note in a slow, grave voice, and the repetitive Philip Glass score pounds dramatically in the background. While Virginia Woolf drowns in the stream, we prepare to drown in the bathos of this film.
“The Hours” follows one day in the lives of three women. Virginia Woolf in 1923, while restlessly recovering from illness in the country outside London, is starting to write “Mrs. Dalloway.” Then there’s Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a repressed ’50s housewife in the bland L.A. suburbs reading “Mrs. Dalloway.” Finally, Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughan, a middle-aged New Yorker in 2001, who, we are told, is living the life of Mrs. Dalloway (she buys flowers and kisses a girl, anyway).
The film skips back and forth among the three dramas as they unfold in each decade: Mrs. Woolf has her overbearing sister and her children over for tea; Mrs. Brown leaves her child with a neighbor and contemplates suicide; Mrs. Vaughan plans a party for her friend, a prize-winning poet who is slowly dying of AIDS. The cinematography work with these three settings is wonderful. Virginia Woolf’s country house outside London, shot in all earthy and lively greens and browns, contrasts the glaring plastic pastels in 1950s suburban Los Angeles, and the modern black, white and gray scheme of Manhattan.
The problem comes in linking these three plot lines together into some sort of argument about Woolf or her writing. That is not to say the film doesn’t try. Like in the book, common themes link the three stories: each woman struggles to balance her present-day life with her spiritual and artistic aspirations, and each deals with the frightening idea that her life has been a failure. But after linking these basic themes, “The Hours” goes even further. In doing so, it follows one of the weaker aspects of the book, and does a much clumsier job. The screenwriter (David Hare) implements allusion after allusion to Mrs. Dalloway. Flowers abound in every scene. Each actress kisses another woman. But the allusions don’t consistently illustrate anything. While the housewife’s kiss is a delicate and frightening realization of her true sexuality, Virginia Woolf kisses her sister so suddenly, forcefully and randomly that I could only think of Michael Corleone kissing Fredo in “The Godfather II,” rather than relating it to anything going on in the film.
Furthermore, the three characters are tied together as if cursed by a voodoo spell. Mrs. Brown will start to exhale, the camera will cut, and Virginia Woolf will finish exhaling. Clarissa Vaughan walks down the stairs, Virginia Woolf walks down the stairs. While Woolf decides that she will not, in fact, have her protagonist Mrs. Dalloway drown herself, the film cuts to a shot of Laura Brown in a hotel room with waves rushing all around her, subsiding at the moment that Mrs. Woolf decides to let Mrs. Dalloway live (but wasn’t Clarissa Vaughan supposed to be the embodiment of Mrs. Dalloway?).
Clearly each of these moves is supposed to bear some intellectual significance, but what? Perhaps there is an answer (life must continue, we must remember our moments of happiness, something) but by the end we hardly care. The actresses are concentrating so hard on the common threads and careful, meaningful, parallel actions that they breathe very little life into the characters. Each, as a result, is completely flat and mildly annoying. Virginia Woolf appears more insane than brilliant; Laura Brown seems fragile and volatile for no reason; and Clarissa Vaughan is, simply put, quite dull. Relief finally comes when Claire Danes shows up at the end (she plays the daughter of Clarissa Vaughan). She is completely free from the Virginia Woolf spell and recites her lines perkily without thinking much. It was quite refreshing.