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Pick of the Week: 'The Hours' DVD

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A 23-year-old woman with whom I was in a writers’ group had just seen The Hours when she proclaimed enthusiastically, “What a movie!” But I had also read reviews by people whose opinions I respect that characterized the film as depressing, dull, and/or pretentious. Thus, it was with considerable wariness that I sat down at home to watch The Hours on DVD. After seeing this movie, I can understand how it will not speak to everyone. As for me, I loved it.

I believe The Hours is aimed primarily at adults who like to read literary novels. Indeed, one of the film’s major themes—and this seems to me to be audacious for a movie that played the multiplexes—is the power of literature. I think it enhances one’s appreciation of the film to know a little about English novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf (1882 - 1941), and it helps even more if you have a working knowledge of her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway.

Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore are the stars of The Hours, and each gets roughly equal screen time.

Kidman, who wears a prosthetic nose and changes her voice for the role, won the Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in the movie. However, Streep and Moore are just as important to the film as Kidman, and I think all three actresses give equally brilliant performances. The three leading actresses receive topnotch support from Ed Harris, Stephen Dillane, Miranda Richardson, Jeff Daniels, Claire Danes, John C. Reilly, Allison Janney, and Toni Collette.

The narrative structure in The Hours is complex, although director Stephen Daldry handled this so skillfully that I was never confused. The movie artfully interweaves three stories: (1) a day in the life of Virginia Woolf (Kidman) in 1923 suburban London; (2) a day in the life of housewife Laura Brown (Moore) in 1951 Los Angeles; and (3) a day in the life of book editor Clarissa Vaughan (Streep) in 2001 Manhattan. The three stories are bookended by scenes of Woolf’s suicide in 1941, and everything is thematically and emotionally unified by way of her novel Mrs. Dalloway.

The Hours is very nearly unrelentingly downbeat with almost no humor.

In fact, all three stories deal in part with suicide, and the movie handles the subject in a resolutely unsentimental way that forced me to think the issue through in terms of different situations: one character has a debilitating terminal physical illness, another has recurring mental problems that are ruining the lives of loved ones, and a third has an innate inability to meet society’s expectations. The choice that each of these three characters makes in the film left me feeling uncomfortable, but it was worth it to me because it deepened my insight into myself and the human condition.

In the final analysis, though, I don’t think The Hours is so much about suicide as it is about the redemptive power of love and work. Consider, for example, the case of Virginia Woolf herself. It’s true that she committed suicide, but she created a body of work Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, and other writings—that still resonates today. And in her personal life, there was her 29-year committed relationship with her husband Leonard.

I think it’s significant that when the movie shows Virginia preparing to drown herself, we hear Nicole Kidman’s voice-over of a note Virginia left for her husband: “Dear Leonard, to look life in the face … always to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is. At last, to know it, to love it for what it is, and then … to put it away. Leonard … always the years between us, always the years … always … the love … always … the hours.”

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