"The Hours" Finds Its Cultural Moment

the hoursIf you belong to a book group, or hang out anywhere near someone who does, you probably read "The Hours" a few years ago when it won the Pulitzer prize and came out in paperback. And then with great pangs of literary anxiety you probably also read "Mrs. Dalloway" just to be fair, and frankly to see if "The Hours" was really as damned clever as everybody said it was. And you realized that, yes, it was.

When you heard that the movie version of "The Hours" was coming out soon, you probably ran to your nearest video store and rented the Vanessa Redgrave version of "Mrs. Dalloway" and made your partner watch it before you dragged him or her to see "The Hours" with you. Yeah, I did too. But then at the last minute he decided to watch the NFL playoffs that rainy Saturday afternoon and I went to the movies with my best friend. As did the other 300 women filling the multiplex cinema theater to capacity.

You could practically smell the estrogen. And once I got over the initial shock of seeing a movie theater filled almost entirely with women (there were maybe 10 guys there) it smelled sweet. Like perfume, rain, friendship and complicity, loneliness and gratitude, safety and secrecy, privacy and big bags of popcorn to go with it. It was really warm in there. A little stifling, honestly, but strangely comforting somehow.

Once the trailers were over, there was an unusually long pause when the screen was just black. The room was utterly silent. I held my breath. We all did. The silence was reverent, expectant, verging on anxious. Everyone in that room had read the book and was there to see justice done. Would we feel the same uncanny transportation into the lives of those three women that had thrilled us on the page? Why was the screen still black? And then, with the opening notes of Philip Glass's haunting score, the film began and we were given exactly what we came for: fluid visual poetry, the novel made real before our eyes, filmic justice as poignant as the original and even slightly more painfully perfect.

Pain and pleasure were why we were there and why Michael Cunningham's novel won the Pulitzer. Rarely has any author, male or female, presented portraits of women on the verge of nervous breakdowns with less drama, sentimentality, or simplistic redemptive rhetoric. Cunningham gives us real women in real pain that has no easy answers.

And Stephen Daldry's film version dares us to look at this pain head on, as it is inscribed on the beautiful, quietly aging faces of its three female stars -- and not wince. But it's hard not to wince. This story holds up a mirror to the pain in all of us, and it is our faces we see in the actors' mournful, angry, or distraught eyes. Everyone's in pain in this story: the men as well as the women. And they are in pain that we share and know too well: trapped lives, lost loves, aging bodies, dying friends, stifled creativity, mental anguish, the struggle to capture in art the truth, beauty and suffering of life.

Read any review of "The Hours" and you will read that Nicole Kidman has reached new heights, depths and breadths of her acting ability in her role as Virginia Woolf. That Meryl Streep brings to her role of Clarissa Vaughan the full spectrum of enigmatic abundance that has characterized only her finest work on the screen. That Julianne Moore discovers a whole new landscape in her role as Laura Brown, stripped to the barest human essence, a virtual anatomy of desperation all in the subtlest flicker of her gaze.

It is fitting that "The Hours" offers these three eminent actors the opportunity for such courageous work. Just as their characters are all on the edge of crucial life changes and choices, each of these famous women is also at a crossroads in her own career.

After "Moulin Rouge," Nicole Kidman is no longer just a sexy kitten, but a creative force to be reckoned with, taking on the most challenging and diverse roles she can get. After "Far From Heaven," Julianne Moore has finally moved beyond the femme fatale into the realm of the real woman, and the vast uncharted territory she represents, demanding even more of the intelligence and rigor that Moore pours so gracefully into her roles.

And after a career of masterful performances, Meryl Streep is now renovating opportunities for women over 50 on screen, and has returned full circle, ironically, to revisit one of her very first roles. In 1978, in Woody Allen's "Manhattan," she played a lesbian mom in New York struggling with the truth of her life and her loves. In 2003, in "The Hours," Streep's Clarissa is technically the same woman, but this time replete with several more decades of wisdom and depth, in a performance that musters every nuance of her skill.

Someday, in a more perfect world, there will be an award for movies that portray three-dimensional female characters who have substantial and complex relationships with other female characters on screen. In that world, this year "The Hours" would win. For along with Streep, Kidman and Moore, there are three other important women in this film, portraying the closest female "friends" of each of our three protagonists. Allison Janney plays Sally -- Clarissa's long-neglected but still devoted and extremely sexy significant other. Miranda Richardson is Vanessa Bell, Woolf's radiant and vibrant sister. And Toni Colette plays Kitty, Laura Brown's neighbor who, like Laura, is also cracking under the strain of 1950s repressiveness, but with a slightly more ghoulish effort to keep up appearances.

Every time one of these three pairs of women fills the screen, the film is charged with energy, tension and truth. Most of what is between them is left unsaid, expressed only with eyes, oblique gestures, half-formed phrases and loaded evasions. Except, that is, for the fact that each pair of women engages in one passionate kiss. Significantly, all of the kisses are motivated by entirely different forces and portrayed in completely different tones, so when they were presented to the audience -- with unflinching boldness and scant preparation -- they caused such stunned excitement throughout the theater that the effect was only slightly scandalous, but utterly breathtaking.

The performances by men in this film are also groundbreaking. Ed Harris and Stephen Dillane both offer new insight into the paradoxical depths of male emotional reality. Their performances shed valuable light onto the dark continent of strength and vulnerability that we all know exists in real men but which is rarely, if ever, shown on the screen. Both of these male actors, like their female co-stars, are given the opportunity to shed the stereotypical gendered armor they wear so often in their other roles.

Ed Harris's Richard, racked with AIDS and filled with poetic visions, drops all semblances of his usual tough heroism and the results are raw and startlingly beautiful. Stephen Dillane, released from the linguistic barrages of Stoppardian intellectual sparring for once, portrays the quiet longing and frustrations of Leonard Woolf with poignancy and eloquent reserve.

Other critics will tell you that the film has to overcome the structural obstacle of temporal fragmentation that comes from intertwining three different time periods in one story. But this obstacle can more accurately be seen as a risk that is resolved artfully through a series of visual motifs and quick cuts between plots: characters from each time period gazing longingly through windows, and others putting flowers emphatically into vases with synchronized impatience.

Flowers (rhymes with hours?) are the most subtle unifying image in the film, specifically, the image of yellow roses. Clarissa buys them for Richard's poetry award party, Laura Brown makes them out of frosting to decorate a birthday cake, and Virginia Woolf's niece Angelica uses them as an ornament for a makeshift grave for a small dead bird, the significance of which Woolf ponders intently. In all three cases, the flowers represent the cycle of life and creative inspiration: the intertwining themes of the movie itself.

In answer to the long-debated question, the answer is yes: Literature can save Hollywood. It may be the only thing that can. Bashed by some as pretentiously literary and too "politically correct" to be palatable, the film version of "The Hours" is neither of these. It is simply a movie that has found its cultural moment by answering the obvious need of a nation of women and men who want to read good books and see good films about strong, interesting, complex people.

Movies offer us an escape from reality, but literature offers us the inspiration of reality as art. Complex and unstable, reality (not simplistic fantasy, as studio executives would have us think) is the source of all the beauty in our lives. Just as Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway" inspires Julianne Moore's character in "The Hours" to make hard choices and live more fully, so can literature offer to Hollywood screenplays worth producing, and visual models for lives worth living.

Valerie Ross is a freelance writer who also teaches humanities at Stanford University.

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