You Know How to Whistle, Don't You?

"You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow." - Lauren Bacall, To Have and Have Not

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Movie review - The Hours

The Hours, as nearly everyone knows by now, has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. (Indeed, a recent ad touts it as “the only film nominated for nine Oscars”, hoping we won’t remember that Chicago is nominated for thirteen, and Gangs of New York for ten.) The film won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, and Nicole Kidman won for best actress. Critics have been raving for weeks. I don't get it. Not only is The Hours far from being the best film of the year, it isn’t a particularly great film at all. Moviegoers expecting to see a masterpiece won’t find one, although those expecting an ordinary Friday night movie will find a few excellent performances and some inspired moments. Ultimately, however, Stephen Daldry’s flatfooted direction and a pervasive stagnant melancholy create a movie that seems to do little and mean less.
The Hours, based on the Michael Cunningham book of the same name, tells the stories of three women simultaneously——the author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman); Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a housewife in the 1950s; and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a Manhattan editor in the present day. The stories revolve around Woolf’s book Mrs. Dalloway, exploring its creation, depicting its effect on a reader, and recreating the book’s plot in Clarissa’s efforts to throw a party for a close friend and former lover, the poet Richard Brown (Ed Harris). Like Mrs. Dalloway, each woman’s story is told in the context of a single day: a conceit that gives the film needed structure, but sacrifices the characters’ histories, often rendering them unsympathetic or unfathomable.
The film repeats lines, actions, and imagery in each of the three women’s stories to emphasize the universality of its themes and the connectedness of women’s lives. Unfortunately, these themes——how death sharpens our enjoyment of life, and the small and yet profound tragedies of women’s daily lives——are obscured by muddy philosophizing, a thudding score by Philip Glass, and general artistic obfuscation. Too often, parallel incidents are treated with painful obviousness (Look! All the women are cracking eggs! Look, they’re all talking about flowers!) rather than with subtlety and wit. The contrivances of The Hours, and its stylized, somewhat artificial stories, would be forgivable and indeed fascinating if they illuminated powerful themes, or emphasized universal elements in women’s lives. Instead, Daldry seems to think that the parallels create meaning by themselves. It is unclear what he wants us to glean from his film.
Not that there aren’t excellent moments. Julianne Moore gives a shimmering performance in the film’s most underwritten role. We learn very little about Laura Brown——her history and motivations are a blank slate——but Moore convinces us that Laura’s suffering is no less real for being incommunicable. Toni Collette plays Kitty, Laura’s neighbor diagnosed with cancer, as funny, fake, and heart wrenching, with visible terror seeping through her insistence that nothing’s wrong. An argument between Virginia and Leonard Woolf (Stephen Dillane) at a train station has shown up in Nicole Kidman’s numerous awards show clips. While her moments are compelling, it is Dillane’s quieter performance that makes the scene so moving, depicting a man confused, frightened, and ultimately accepting of his wife’s fundamental instability.
Meryl Streep gives a curiously flat, two-dimensional performance as Clarissa Vaughan. This is partly due to the film’s limited time frame. We hear about one or two pivotal moments in her life, but they are unseen and unexplained. If, indeed, a long-ago morning with Richard was the happiest she’s ever been, what does that mean for Clarissa’s vastly different life now? We see Virginia struggle not to let her illness define her. Laura undergoes an identity transformation onscreen. Yet the possible tensions between Clarissa’s past with Richard and her present ten-year relationship with Sally Lester (a criminally underused Allison Janney) aren’t explored. Because of this, Clarissa’s meltdown in front of a guest (Jeff Daniels) is emotionally inaccessible to the audience, and Streep’’s incessant hand-wringing and bracelet-jangling distracts from any truth the scene might contain.
Nicole Kidman’s Woolf is fascinating and problematic. Kidman loses herself in the role, not merely with the famous nose, but in her posture, manner, and overall appearance. She plays a mentally ill woman with an abandon that walks a fine line between brilliance and outright caricature. She conveys Woolf’s fear and alienation effectively, but again, the constraints of the film keep us from fully encountering Woolf as author, friend, wife, or sister——everything we learn about her centers on her illness and the fact of her suicide.
Michael Cunningham may have written a lyrical, profound book that tells the stories of three complex, unique, and yet universal women. I haven't read the novel, so I can't comment on it. It’s clear, however, that Daldry is straining to create that kind of movie, and equally clear that he falls short. In the end, the audience sees Woolf and her fellow characters as terminally troubled without understanding what brought them to such a point. We encounter them only as depressed, suicidal, sexually frustrated cutouts. These women are incomprehensible and incomplete, constrained mainly by the author and director who created them. It’s unfortunate that a project with so much talent and promise leaves the reviewer wondering whether Daldry and Cunningham understand women’s lives at all.
Originally published February 18, 2003.


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