Monday, December 03, 2007

Monday Movie Review: The Hours

The Hours (2002) 10/10
A single, pivotal day in the lives of three women: Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) in the 1920s as she writes Mrs. Dalloway; Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) in 2001, as she prepares to throw a party for her friend Richard (Ed Harris), whose nickname for her is Mrs. Dalloway, and Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) in the 1950s, who is reading Mrs. Dalloway.

Last week, I saw The Hours for the second time (I saw it in the theater in 2002), and then read the novel The Hours.

The first thing I should say is that The Hours is fully and one hundred percent a movie. What author Michael Cunningham did with words in his novel is done visually in the film. Director Stephen Daldry created a visual language, a language of jewelry and flowers and color and food. The women flow in and out of each other, and that's crucial, but it's not done in a way that's verbal or linear. They connect in their hand movements, and their earrings; the visual particulars of life, every bit as much as they connect through events. This is what I think the movie's great achievement is, to work from a famous and highly regarded novel, and not to succumb to novel-worship. The Hours is a story to look at and to feel.

The novel, on the other hand, is very much a story to read. Its words are exquisite, complex, delicate, and dense.

As she pilots her Chevrolet along the Pasadena Freeway, among hills still scorched in places from last year's fire, she feels as if she's dreaming or, more precisely, as if she's remembering this drive from a dream long ago. Everything she sees feels as if it's pinned to the day the way etherized butterflies are pinned to a board. Here are the black slopes of the hills dotted with the pastel stucco houses that were spared from the flames. Here is the hazy, blue-white sky...She is a woman in a car dreaming about being in a car.

This passage stuns me. It's just Laura driving; but all the images add up to so much; to numbness and death and escaping death, to the beauty of life and the intense sense of disconnection.

Daldry achieves something similar in the film, although not quite as brilliantly. I don't want to compare the two (that never works) so much as contrast them and use the novel to illuminate the movie, to show both its brilliance and its flaws. Certainly the internal life of each woman cannot be conveyed as easily on film. Instead, the movie is more emotional, more embracing. It's a good choice. It's a movie that makes you cry without being a "tearjerker." Which is to say, I didn't feel jerked.

Both times I saw the movie I was intensely struck by the costumes, by how put together they were, perfectly real in a way that was almost too perfect. Clarissa dresses exactly like the character she is; a successful New York lesbian with a long-time partner and a gorgeous brownstone. The black turtleneck, the elaborate necklace, the amber earrings, all just so. And the book definitely gave me insight into that; each woman is aware that she's performing; Laura Brown just doesn't dream she's a woman driving, she is playing the character of a woman driving, of a pregnant housewife and a mother baking a cake. The heightened tone illustrates that.

There are sour notes in the movie. There were lines that felt so "literary adaptation," that were so written. And they fell with a thud. Interestingly, those lines mostly weren't in the book; they were an attempt to convey things from the book in dialogue rather than in imagery and action. Screenwriter David Hare is the likely culprit; he's better known as a playwright than a screenwriter, and the literary tone could certainly work on the stage.

Ed Harris is kind of off. His dialogue didn't fit his emotional presence. I understood the character much better reading him; in the novel he was kind of fey, but Harris plays Richard with a driving rage, and that doesn't entirely work.

But these are isolated moments. The movie is completely worth seeing, completely fascinating. So few movies attend to the small details of life in a way that adds up to something larger. The Hours is one of them.

(This is a cross-post dreaming of being cross-posted.)