…and the quest to see everything

I’m Finished! Cunningham’s The Hours

I’ve seen Stephen Daldry‘s The Hours yea ago.

A movie that has an imprint on my brain. Its deep vibrancy and visuals to show the spark within its three protagonists, all of them connected with Virginia Woolf and her novel “Mrs. Dalloway.” I remember the dialogue and arguments that the characters have with each other, the camera’s close-ups towards these women and the object that surround them.

The parks where Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) strolls to after discovering her first sentence to “Dalloway.” Laura Brown’s (Julianne Moore) colourful suburbs and one-time hotel room that she rents before she resumes her duty as housewife for her husband Dan’s (John C. Reilly) birthday. How Clarissa ‘Dalloway’ Vaughn (Meryl Streep) taps her chin with her finger before doing her chores, walking all over the cold and polished grit of Manhattan to prepare for the party she’s throwing for her poet ex-boyfriend Richard (Ed Harris), starting with deciding to but the flowers herself.

And there’s the other common element among the main characters – their female love interests, unrequited and fleeting for both Virginia and Laura. Vanessa (Miranda Richardson), who has three young children and is a better and more benevolent head of the household than her sister Virginia. Kitty (Toni Collette), the well-built yet childless and possibly cancer-stricken housewife next door to Laura with a husband grosser than Dan. And Sally (Alison Janney) who gets to go to dinners with a recently outed action star named Oliver St. Ives. The three having this aura and presence when they walk into a room even if they’re arguably less beautiful than the women who pine for them. It was the early 2000’s and despite the lamented decline of queer content then, this is one of the instances when queer cinema was becoming mainstream.

One of the entries in the trivia section of the movie’s iMDb page: “Although the widely perceived notion was that Michael Cunningham‘s original novel was felt to be unfilmable, adapter David Hare actually thought it was effortlessly cinematic.”After seeing the movie, I read the book to find out.

Hare and Daldry make subtle changes to the story, setting Laura and Clarissa’s story lines two years later than they are in the novel. Clarissa’s Manhattan feels more autumn than June. The movie excises characters like St. Ives and Mary Krull. And sure I had reservations about casting like Moore who is older than Laura. Reilly, despite being well-groomed, is on the schlubby end instead of being in the middle ground of schlub and war veteran as the novel suggests. Clarissa’s competition Louis who is seemingly smaller than Jeff Daniels. Claire Danes has to wear chunky sweaters to remind us that she’s Julia, Clarissa’s Viking-like daughter. But they bring such effortless life and well-rounded nature to these characters.

The novel stays with each protagonist for a longer section of time while we see each women reluctantly start their days. The movie is otherwise loyal with the book’s interwoven time lines, such as portraying what happens to Clarissa before showing how Laura has caused them.

Sentence structures look simple until Cunningham’s urban sense kicks in. He describes the places where the characters live, putting his reader into each world and making us shift our eyes from one building into another, into the sky, making us hear the loud sounds or the silences. The writing evokes the few morsels of Virginia Woolf’s prose that I’ve read both in this novel and in college readings. He pulls out from detail to a bigger picture, these transitions within the paragraph read as easy as Woolf would push in the other way.

It’s also very object-oriented, especially in the novel’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ sections. There, he explains the bourgeois exoticism and how Clarissa likes things like her flowers to appear wild, even if everything is clean and arranged. Equally he writes how detached she is with things like her dishes that feel like her girlfriend Sally’s instead of hers, the same way the other main characters feel dissatisfied and awkward with their own relative comforts and successes. There are still traces of unhappiness in Clarissa’s life even though she’s supposedly the symbol of progress that feels so fleeting that the fictional Virginia and Laura couldn’t grasp it in their minds.

There is also less dialogue in the novel, as if it wants Virginia and Laura to share a kiss and a love for a woman or for Clarissa to successfully negotiate the power dynamic between her and her few guests. I like that the movie lets the characters air their stuff out with each other and let their pathos be more visceral and verbal. Of course that’s the only choice since two people staring or firing short sentences at each other in a room seems anti-cinematic. That makes me sound like a Philistine, right?

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6 responses

  1. My fave thing in the book was how Clarissa runs into the film crew and thinks Meryl Streep might be in the movie they’re shooting.

    November 4, 2011 at 10:58 am

  2. Love this, love this although I have nothing significant to add other than I could make a case for every literary character being mad in some way or the other.

    November 4, 2011 at 5:36 pm

  3. nice analysis. it’s one of my favorite books and movies. i remember the screenplay for ‘adaptation’ getting praise that year but ‘the hours’ managed to make an excellent film out of an “unfilmable book” without resorting to gimmickry.

    November 5, 2011 at 10:44 am

  4. Love love this piece, I also read the novel to compare it with the movie. And you’re right that there is less dialogue in the novel. As far as I can remember, I think these characters think a lot about the people they meet and how those people see them. That kinda conforms the similar characteristic between them: they worry a lot.

    November 5, 2011 at 6:17 pm

  5. Jose: Hall of mirrors. And the most bourgeois of us, just like Clarissa, would wait outside the trailer for the same amount of time.

    Andrew K.: Best thesis ever 🙂

    Mr. Jeffrey: True. Like they would have made the cinematography for the Virginia and the Laura scenes way more different than they already are.

    thatfellow: They’re a bit catty and vindictive but the “worry” part makes sense, disarming the characters into sympathizing with each other. 🙂

    November 6, 2011 at 2:21 pm

  6. Max

    This movie makes me terribly sad. I remember watching it a few times after it came out and the Philip Glass soundtrack is still amazing today. This is a difficult film to watch, but well worth it.

    November 7, 2011 at 10:36 pm

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