From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Adaptations: The Hours

(editor's note: Previous looks at adaptations of books to film are at my old blog site. Go here and scroll to the bottom)

I remember when The Hours was released in 2002, the only things I knew about it were that there was supposed to be a serious downer, there were a lot of good performances in it, and that an awful lot of hoo ha had been made about Nicole Kidman sporting a fake nose in the movie to look more like the author Virginia Woolf, whom she was portraying (think I'm kidding? Check out this Google. 9,410 hits is an awful lot of nose picking). After seeing the movie with friends finally, I can safely say that paying attention to the nose Kidman was sporting is like missing the forest for the trees in a huge way.

The Hours follows three parallel story lines. In one, Nicole Kidman plays Woolf (a nice breakdown of Woolf's works can be found here), on the verge of completing her novel Mrs Dalloway. The troubled thoughts of the novel's title character reflect the burdened mind that Woolf herself is coping with, psychological problems that ultimately contributed to her suicide as I understand it correctly.

Relating to the troubles that lie beneath Dalloway's ordered world, Juliane Moore's character of Laura Brown is reading the novel in the second storyline. An American housewife in the 1950's, Brown appears to be living the American dream. She has a loving and attentive husband (John C. Reilly) and son, and is pregnant with another child to join their family. Nothing is as it seems in Laura's mind, however. An endeavor to bake a cake for her husband's birthday demonstrates that nothing is as simple in Laura's mind as it seems on the surface.

The third storyline focuses on Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), an editor who is struggling mightily to put together a dinner party for her dear friend Richard (Ed Harris). Richard is receiving an award for his contributions as a writer, but Richard feels that he's more likely being rewarded for having AIDS and surviving long enough to be recognized. The end is near for Richard, and he fights to get Clarissa to come to terms with his eventual departure, even as she tries to maintain a facade of control. The connection to the other two storylines seems faint at first, as the only apparent relation is Richard's pet name for Vaughn: Mrs. Dalloway, also inspired by the novel. It is as the three storylines work towards a denouement that the audience sees how deeply the connections run between the three women, and their struggles with their humanity.

As a film, I was struck by how much the film has to offer on a technical level. The editing that is done on the movie to bring each of the different storylines to the fore is really sharp, and helps give the movie a lot of its edge. In juggling such disparate storylines, it would be easy to get lost in the transition from one to the next. But between the editing, and strong direction from Steven Daldry, the perspective is always very clear, and lets you really focus on each of the characters and their role in the story.

And the characters are very complex and deeply drawn. Streep is an actress who I was never overly fond of for most of her career. But her turns here and in Adaptation gave me a much deeper appreciation for her as an actress. She seems a lot more human here, more real than in anything else I've seen her in.

Moore has always been an actress I liked and respected for doing some very challenging and unconventional roles. Boogie Nights, the film I first became aware of her in, has been running on cable quite a bit lately, and I'm always struck by how sad I find her character in that movie. There's an equal measure of sadness in this turn as well, but the motivations behind it are very different. When her dilemma came to the fore of her story, I really appreciated how it turned her whole world on its ear, making it seem less like an ideal or dream, and more like a perverse sort of nightmare. Laura is easily the character I most sympathized and identified with.

But the runaway performance of the movie goes to Kidman. Nicole Kidman has always been an exceptional actress to watch work, even when the material wasn't quite up to her level of performance. In this movie, she elevates her game another notch. All the fixation on the makeup and how she "uglied" herself for the role really very much misses the point of her turn. More than anything, Kidman's Woolf represented for me a woman very much trying to regain some kind of control over her own destiny, and maintain whatever dignity she has left in her life. There's a particularly impassioned exchange between Woolf and her husband Leonard at a train station:

Virginia Woolf : I'm dying in this town.
Leonard Woolf : If you were thinking clearly, Virginia, you would recall it was London that brought you low.
Virginia Woolf : If I were thinking clearly? If I were thinking clearly?
Leonard Woolf : We brought you to Richmond to give you peace.
Virginia Woolf : If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know. Only I can understand my condition. You live with the threat, you tell me you live with the threat of my extinction. Leonard, I live with it too.

It's a sentiment I have read about a lot in regards to people with some kind of mental illness or degenerative condition. The loved ones/family members live in fear of losing the person they knew or loved, without understanding just how much more humiliating and maddening it must be to lose yourself from the inside out. I can't imagine what it must be like to live with a condition like that and I pray I never have to find out.

Kidman makes you feel the frustration Woolf had to have been experiencing in losing control of the one thing that most defined who she was to the world: the gifted mind that made her such a proficient writer. I respect every single thing she does to try and get that control back, even if the rest of the world that she interacts most directly with thinks less of her for those actions. It's a powerful performance, and it makes me wish Kidman had more opportunities like this one to really stretch herself as an actress.

Director Daldry, who had previously helmed arthouse and critical fave Billy Elliot, shows some amazing talent in this, his third feature. His collaboration with screenwriter Michael Chabon The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay due out next year is a film that I'm eagerly anticipating. Chabon (who wrote the novel The Wonder Boys, along with what I think was one of, if not the greatest super hero script of all time in Spider Man 2) collaborating with Daldry is a joining of talent that will make any movie geek worth his salt really excited. It should be something to see.

In any case, this work as it stands is an very strong, compelling dramatic effort. If you're looking for a story with some meat on its bones, you would be hard pressed to find a better choice than this one, particularly if you're looking for something with strong female characters to enjoy.