As the hours tick away,
Can you find
A peace of mind?
Ere the debt that all men pay,
Will you stress
Will you leave this earth too soon,
Slack to strive
And stay alive?
From life’s grief, none are immune,
And some begin
To give in.
I, for one, refuse, however,
Ties weren’t made for me to sever;
Life will grow,
Despite the woe.
The Hours profoundly embodies that famous quote from Henry David Thoreau, asserting that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” In the case of this film, that quiet desperation is the realm of women, whether it be an unstable author in 1923, a depressed housewife in 1951, or an overwhelmed hostess in 2001. There is little relief from this oppressive despair, yet the film has artistry to spare, with a superb score from Philip Glass, vivid cinematography from Seamus McGarvey, and poignant performances from three Oscar-winning actresses and Ed Harris.
On a purely superficial level, The Hours has a haunting allure as it eloquently jumps between timelines and slowly reveals their connections, but as I delve deeper into its messages, I find them more and more dubious, even appalling. Let’s start with the three storylines. In Plot 1, Virginia Woolf (Oscar winner Nicole Kidman in a false, uglifying nose) begins her novel Mrs. Dalloway, preparing for visitors and mourning her unsatisfying country existence. In Plot 2, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) stumbles through the simplest activities and mourns her unsatisfying suburban existence. In Plot 3, bisexual Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) plans a party for her dying writer friend Richard (Ed Harris) and buckles under the weight of her unsatisfying urban existence. Obviously this is not a “happy” film, but even tearjerkers can offer some hope or peace or gratification in the midst of trials. Based on its three paragons of sorrow, The Hours seems to imply that life and society are inherently unsatisfying and can only be improved by abandonment of society, of responsibility, of life itself.
Setting aside moral qualms about the characters, I find Meryl Streep’s Plot 3 to be the only one that doesn’t deeply vex me, since it at least captures the sorrow and emptiness that this abandonment causes. Plots 1 and 2 are a different story. Both feature their heroines in clear social anguish, yet I find it hard to sympathize with either one since both of them share a galling selfishness. Mrs. Woolf goes out of her way to annoy the servants and complains about protective measures her husband did out of love, though her history of mental illness at least explains her behavior. Mrs. Brown of Plot 2 is the most perplexing of the three, since she acts as if daily life is an unbearable torture when there’s nothing particularly torturous going on. She doesn’t have a mental illness; she doesn’t have a friend dying. I kept asking, “What is your problem?” and as she decided on different forms of “escape,” I wanted her to just look at her little son and recognize that he alone, a gift of God and the envy of her neighbors, ought to be reason enough for her to bear whatever emotional constipation she was enduring.
I see why The Hours was so acclaimed. Between the acting, the haunting music, and the overall artistry, it’s a film to be studied rather than enjoyed. In particular, I liked the writer details, such as how Virginia Woolf decides to write her book based on the first sentence she develops or how she explains why a character must die. There is good, but as the film nears its end, there is an intellectual, venomous bad as well. The abandonment I mentioned earlier takes center-stage, and instead of being rebuked, it is sympathized and even admired. This mirrors the novel Mrs. Dalloway as well, and Woolf’s ideas in it have clearly affected the scholastic view of her own life and suicide. In watching a behind-the-scenes feature on the DVD, I was shocked at how critics and academics used words like “bold” and “courageous” in describing how she took her own life. I’m sorry, but I find nothing courageous or admirable about the tragedy of suicide nor the actions of several sufferers in The Hours. When one character attempts to explain those actions and comments that she had “no choice,” my feelings toward the movie were clinched. Woolf in the film mentions how we should “love [life] for what it is” but then “put it away”; I disagree. One doesn’t put life away; I could counter with one of the film’s own quotes: “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”
Best line: (Woolf’s sister Vanessa, to her own daughter) “Your aunt is a very lucky woman, Angelica. She has two lives: the life she is living, and the book she is writing.”
Rank: Dishonorable Mention
© 2015 S. G. Liput
334 Followers and Counting