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?
- Michael Cunningham discusses The Hours (guardian.co.uk)
The first scene involves dried blood in Janusz’s (Jim Sturgess) face. His interrogators bring out the witness against him – his own teary-eyed wife – with the same viscera, and I remember the only bone that the Academy has thrown towards this movie. There’s more of that as we follow Janusz’s story as he gets in and escapes from a Siberian prison camp, taking six other men with him, most of whom have invited themselves to the grueling journey. There are these male movie stars efficiently worn down and their skin dried from the cold weather to mix with and placed behind the extras playing prisoners.
The make-up goes with the harsh conditions the men meet when they do escape, the snow on their beards while crossing the snows of Siberia and the Himalayas, the bites of cheeks in their stop at a mosquito-plagued lake or the sores on their faces as they walk the desert. The back and forth between the rugged terrain and the rougher faces and bodies of the characters make a balance between the two aspects of the film. The frozen and mummified corpse of a blind boy who escapes with them but doesn’t even get out of the Siberian forests, flaky skin and chapped lips a la Sergio Leone, swollen feet when they try to cross the Gobi. The effects are realistic, seamless but not too gruesome. Even if it is make-up, it complements the pathos that the characters face during this epic journey.
The film actually begins with title cards indicating three people making it to India. Not having read the source material, which other three won’t make it? You’d think the top billed cast members would, but it’s more complicated than that. I also like how the film handles its ‘Survivor’ like inevitability, as some who do not make it get elegies and close-ups, some just get a cross and are left, and one person, afraid, just chooses not to move on.
The film switches languages, although the story justifies it. Ed Harris‘ Mr. Smith is American so he doesn’t have to hide, even if he does speak some Russian to Mongolian horsemen they meet in the desert, but the film’s top billed stars are Anglophones who sometimes speak a Slavic language. I wonder if the language aspect of the film will be more constant if , say, Bela Tarr directed it. Colin Farrell‘s Valka does the most heavy lifting with the accent work, making the language bullying and threatening. He stabs a prisoner in the stomach for not giving him the latter’s sweater. Saoirse Ronan‘s mysterious Irena is the weakest link with her accent, at first sounding like a mix between Teutonic and her native Irish. However, she saves it by singing in Russian with Valka, finally her secret as a street urchin revealed. Other cast members are known in their homelands, the film’s casting then serves as a way to introduce world-class talent and faces outside Hollywood.
The film shows the vast, almost impenetrable landscapes, even if they’re sometimes bordered by the figures of the people escaping. Nature is depicted as a hardship, sometimes unknowingly marked by political forces. The group crosses Mongolia only to find a big hammer and sickle on a free-standing structure, and now they have to change their plans, asking each other, as Irena does, whether other faraway countries like India are ‘free.’ The visuals of the landscapes are accompanied with bombastic and percussion-y music, making the audience feel like these men just want to get through without meditating nature’s beauty.
The beauty they see instead is in each other, as Tomasz the artist (Alexandru Potocean), draws his companions. The other members get ahold of these drawings and take time to complement its resemblance to photography. They remember, for instance, if he has captured Irena’s smile. Zoran (Dragos Bucur) promises to get them published. The film’s editing and structure consist of landscape, expository dialogue, cut to different landscape, the edges between scenes aren’t smooth.
The characters don’t seem to want to know about each other. During the first half hour, the prisoners are divided into cliques and are discouraged from talking to each other, a trait they have learned to practice during their escape. That’s until Irena comes along to ask them questions about themselves. In doing this Irena treads troubled waters, as she helps the audience find out which one still has allegiances to the Party that imprisons him, which innocent looking face has killed someone, or why in general did they get to Eastern Europe and therefore prison. There are signs on the ravaged areas they pass that inevitably remind them of their pasts.
Their character developments aren’t on the surface neither. Janusz, whose kindness Smith calls a weakness, makes him unlikely to become the leader of a group of men tougher and sometimes older than him. However, his kindness goes hand in hand with his perseverance that helps, through words and actions, him and the others go on walking. Zoran, who doesn’t cook nor hunt, eventually becomes useful as he tries to help build camps, but this evolution isn’t screamed out on the script and neither are their differences. Their search for freedom reveals their intelligence and the survival skills they’ve gained during and before their escape. Nonetheless, this film isn’t devoid of clear humane actions. Kindness finds ways into little actions, leading to Voss (Gustaf Skarsgård) carrying Irena even if she slows them down. Their histories full of betrayal and cruelty would not allow them to leave anyone behind until their last breath.
The film’s ending, just like the way it begins, with what seems like unnecessary exposition and feels flat and unfeeling, Janusz’ feet going halfway across the screen as it plays a montage of the dates of the rise and fall of Communism. I’d call this film impressionistic if it wasn’t glossy and beautiful. 3.5/5
Last Saturday, TCM was showing “The Searchers,” the king of all westerns that I can’t blog about for my own neurotic reasons. Fortunately I can tie it into a movie that was on Bravo Canada the night/morning after – Gone Baby Gone. It did come out in a year that overflowed with proper Western films. And both have missing children and gun-toting!
So is Gone Baby Gone a western? It’s not a noir because there are hardly if ever any child abductions in that genre. Noir’s a very adult genre, focusing on an underworld that only seeps into the domestic areas in one or two instances. Dorchester’s both an underbelly and a residential neighborhood, on the other than there’s a separation between those two worlds that the precedent in both genres show. And there’s not enough shadow in the movie. Conversely, There has been a school of thought that believes that the 1970’s urban landscape, particularly New York City, was the new frontier (There’s also a documentary about the post-1967 depiction of police in cinema which I can’t find that talks about this too. It was on AMC.). Our hero Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) introduces the film by narrating about what that the people of Dorchester believe in, patriotism and family values, just like the old West. Dorchester in the 2000’s is a multicultural environment that’s a bit like the West. The film also has two bar fight scenes that involve guns, another thing it has in common with the genre. Yet it doesn’t have the newness nor the relatively hospitable feel nor the desire for purgation that the Western genre evokes. “It’s the things that you don’t choose that make you who you are, ” Patrick says, and he continues with “I’ve lived in this block my whole life, most of these people have.” The neighborhood can either only not change or decay, and we can say the same about its inhabitants.
And it’s easy enough to compare the characters of Gone Baby Gone‘s with that of “The Searchers.” Patrick is the Martin Pawley, our dutiful moral compass. Both are hybrid characters – they are despised in one society and is a stranger to another. Both are men infiltrating a seedy environment, believe in an idealized world with order, and can pistol-whip their enemies even though they don’t look it. Patrick’s more level-headed than Martin, but both are equally capable of making tactical mistakes with dangerous strangers. And Patrick’s more hesitant in killing criminals than Martin is.
His girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) is the domestic, moral yet brainwashed Laurie Jorgensen. Both represent the mainstream morality of their time. Both are equally prone to saying ruthlessly horrific things about the other characters and unhesitatingly condemn to those whom they think are beneath them. But obviously, Laurie will never jump into a quarry to try to save another woman’s child.
Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) is Ethan Edwards, both of whom are psychopaths who have suspicious origins and histories and are constantly abusing their powers under a badge. Both also have skewered worldviews – children might forgive, Mr. Bressant, but they don’t forget. Both also know their enemies like experts. Amanda MacCready is Debbie Edwards, both of whom fit better with those who have abducted them, who fit better in an idealized world that the protagonists are willing to destroy. Their return to their homes are open-ended, at least more so with Amanda’s. And Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman)? Spoiler, but he’s a dop-pel-gang-er!
Helene MacCready (Amy Ryan, nominated for an Academy Award for the role) is a different animal, or at least someone who belongs to the Noir tradition. The scene where she recalls her daughter’s supposed last words has revolting implications. She’s irredeemable. The most horrifying thing about her character is that she’s only capable of promising change in times of crisis. When Patrick restores order for her benefit, she can’t even fake joy for this reunion, not even for the cameras. She leaves her daughter like she does every day, returns to her old, drug addled ways.
Also, both “The Searchers” and Gone Baby Gone tend towards deluded ethics based on wobbly rhetoric. The denouement of Gone Baby Gone, when Patrick finally confronts Amanda’s real kidnapper, he prattles on with a speech about that what’s better for the child is not right for the child. Both Patrick and the kidnapper try to speak on the child’s behalf, a dangerous thing to do. Patrick even speaks like this in front of Angie. In most of the film, I felt that its grit outweighs it sentimentality, but this scene makes both influences present, for better or worse. Both the kidnapper’s words and delivery seem more sane that Patrick’s idealism, or maybe Affleck (director or star) might be misguided during this particular stage of the character.
Lars just told me that Gone Baby Gone is the last of a series of four books in a series by pulp writer Dennis Lehane. Explains the speeches. And don’t mistake me, I like the movie. I would have loved it would those few scenes.