The Blog

Pathos or Bathos?

On whether "The Hours" succeeds or fails in its ambition to profundity.

11:00 PM, Jan 23, 2003 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

AS THE ONLY PERSON in North America with anything bad to say about "The Hours," I feel a certain obligation to speak up. Stylish and watchable, perhaps, graced even with some nice performances in the minor roles and some touching moments, "The Hours" tackles a challenging theme--mental disturbance and its toll on the sufferers and their loved ones--but makes of it essentially a heap of pretentious claptrap.

Promising profundity, the movie delivers scrupulously p.c. confusion. Because it tells three stories, with different characters and settings, in the place of one, it avoids achieving depth in any single direction. Instead, it retreats into complexity, lurching incessantly backward and forward in time, leaping from plot to plot, and further confounding the viewer by failing to adopt a consistent tone: The Virginia Woolf strand and the contemporary Manhattan strand are realistic in style; the 1951 Los Angeles suburb sequence is cartoonlike and surreal.

If anything comes close to redeeming "The Hours," it is the Virginia Woolf portion, though not for the reason universally asserted: Far from being a "performance of astounding bravery," Nicole Kidman's interpretation of Virginia is zombielike. Kidman sleepwalks expressionless through the role, as if her director had simply forgotten to mention that she was meant to be portraying a writer of genius who captivated not only many readers but virtually everyone who encountered her in person.

Rather, it is despite the blankness of Kidman's performance that this is the most interesting part of the movie. There's just no draining the poignancy from the story of Woolf's recurrent struggle with madness, her husband Leonard's resourceful devotion to her welfare, the long success of their unusual marriage, and its ultimate end with her suicide in 1941, as she felt herself sinking once again into insanity. The figure of Leonard is barely sketched here--and, at that, with some suggestion that he's more a jailer than a husband. But we do get a glimpse of Virginia's sister, Vanessa, and of the piquant relationship between the sexless Virginia and the less gifted, exuberantly heterosexual Vanessa, a mother of three. As the movie faithfully portrays, the day she drowned herself, Virginia left two notes on the mantelpiece, expressions of love and gratitude to Leonard and Vanessa.

If its element of non-fiction elevates "The Hours," its two fictional portions weigh the movie down like undigested dough. Story number two is a peek into the world of the pretty Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), Depressed Suburban Everywoman, 1951. Told next to nothing about Laura's past or the history of her depression, we see her struggling through the day, a forced smile fixed on her masklike face. Her house and small son are preternaturally immaculate and silent. She bakes a birthday cake for her husband. Throws it away. Bakes another. Drops her son off with a babysitter. Goes to a hotel, clutching Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway." Decides to kill herself. Doesn't. Goes back home. Sits in the bathroom as if on the brink of doom, as her cloddish husband who actually thinks they're happy summons her to bed.

A disquieting, stifling unreality, as if it were all happening at the bottom of the sea, permeates this part of the movie. In comparison, story number three is a breath of fresh air. It's at least about a woman--Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep)--who moves and speaks and reacts with apparent normality and lives in a recognizable New York. Indeed, her life is nothing if not up to date.

Chic and well heeled in a designer-jeans-and-amber-earrings sort of way, Clarissa is an editor by trade and a woman with a complicated personal situation. She lives with a female lover, has a twentyish daughter whose father she doesn't know, and once had an idyll in Wellfleet with a poet named Richard who is now dying of AIDS and to whom she apparently provides regular care.

On the day depicted in the movie, Richard is to receive an award, and Clarissa is a giving party in his honor, a seated dinner for 50 in her apartment. Her elaborate arrangements--the roses and lobster and little golden chairs--turn out to be for naught when Richard, an angry and unkempt recluse, repays her kindness by--but I guess I'm not supposed to give away the plot.

Suffice it to say, the three strands turn out to be linked by more than their various connections to "Mrs. Dalloway," the novel we see Virginia working on, about a woman named Clarissa who is giving a party. The message seems to be that dysfunction breeds dysfunction, with a price to be paid by all those who come near. Tackled honestly, with convincing characters whose stories we were actually allowed to know, this would be meaty subject matter. But at least one viewer left "The Hours" feeling toyed with.

It is a film, after all, in which some faithful caretakers of the disturbed are more equal than others. The lesbian bobo Clarissa gets sympathetic treatment, while Laura's husband is portrayed with contempt, and Virginia's husband gets short shrift. Especially in the absence of a single well-developed male character, the heavy-handed lesbian motif--each of the stories features a girl-to-girl kiss on the lips, two of them totally gratuitous--is particularly oppressive.

Virginia Woolf--predictably identified on the website for "The Hours" as "a feminist writer"--actually decried political agendas in fiction. She warned women writers against laying the least stress on any grievance, and urged them not to view the world through the prism of their sex but to "think of things in themselves." "The Hours" might have been a better movie if its makers had paid attention to that advice.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.