Stephen Daldrey’s immensely likeable Billy Elliot (2000) cannibalized itself beyond repair by its political silliness; there were other problems as well. The acting by Julie Walters and Jamie Bell, widely honored, of course elevated the musical-comedy-drama, and there was no dearth of passionate, heart-jumping scenes; but Daldrey’s first film left a good many of us with a sense of having been manipulated towards no other end than a walloping emotional payoff. Whatever my reservations, however, Billy Elliot did nothing to prepare me for Daldrey’s second film, The Hours—despite a thrilling, complex and indelible performance by Nicole Kidman, a perfectly dreadful film. Indeed, one of the worst films I have seen, this heartless exercise in audience manipulation—it’s as much a “trick-film” as either The Sixth Sense or Memento—is based on a prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, which David Hare, no less, has ickily adapted. Despite an elegant appearance (lots of arty compositions, with labored lighting, of highly decorative sets, accompanied by the music of Philip Glass, both old and new, and Richard Strauss), this is a crude, offensively reductive and basically moronic piece, and one in which the vast majority of the acting is bad beyond belief. Since the directing of actors is how he apparently defines his work (this is not the job description of a gifted or serious filmmaker), Daldrey has thus effectively eliminated himself from any future consideration as an artist. Consider him, instead, a buffoon.
I had misgivings to begin with, for the press seemed to indicate—not that it at all cared—that the film’s portrait of Virginia Woolf, the British novelist who is its protagonist, was primarily designed to dupe people who knew nothing about her into believing nonsense about her. If one were to believe this ridiculous film, Woolf had bats in her belfry—a manic-depressive, she experienced a few psychotic episodes (not nearly as many as, I bet, this wretched film has induced in any one of its audiences), and she lived in continual, if not continuous, fear of the onslaught of madness—but her sister, Vanessa Bell (whom you might not even guess was a painter) was a model of sanity and bourgeois decorum. What a clever idea: make Bell, a bohemian who painted human figures without faces, ten times more staid than she actually was just to make Woolf look twice as nutty as she was. It’s fortunate for the film that Kidman’s exquisite, poignant, dignified performance redresses some of this nonsense, but nothing in the film suggests the truth about Woolf’s suicide. You would never guess from what you see here that the author of the seminal pacifist-feminist tract “Three Guineas” (1939) was in despair about the new European war, just as she had protested the First World War, and that she worried about the fate of her Jewish husband (whom you would never even guess, from this film, was Jewish), socialist and political writer Leonard Sidney Woolf, with whom she had devised a suicide pact should the Nazis invade England. (Leonard Woolf survived his wife by close to thirty years, devoting himself to her literary legacy.) It’s a really queer and skewed presentation of Woolf that has her so beset with personal problems that she hasn’t time to consider the world outside. To be sure, this film, for the most part, sets Woolf earlier, at the time in the mid-’20s (between wars) when she was writing Mrs. Dalloway, but because the film is framed with scenes of her drowning death in Sussex it behooves the film to give some sense of the environment out of which this suicide occurred. Indeed, the compression of time that The Hours ruthlessly effects implies that the poor woman wrote the novel and promptly killed herself. Rather, her greatest novel, To the Lighthouse (1927), as well as Orlando (1928) and others, still lay ahead.
My goodness: the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press is presented as comic relief!; but, by my calculation, this here joked-about private press had already published T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land a couple of years earlier. (Maxim Gorky, Sigmund Freud, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield: these are others whose work this press published.) This film insults the intelligence of anyone with the least bit of knowledge about the Woolfs—and certainly that should be anyone with a liberal arts college education: one would think, the movie’s target audience.
But that’s not all. Guess who isn’t mentioned at all in this strange, undesirable piece of cystic fibrosis? Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father, and one of the most towering figures in British literary and publishing history. (Among his voluminous accomplishments, Sir Leslie wrote History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century, 1876, and, along with Sidney Lee, edited the first 26 volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography, for which he himself wrote 378 entries. Stephen also was a famous religious doubter; concluding that God’s existence is unknowable, he declared, “I do not the less believe in morality.”) One may argue, foolishly, that Stephen had, after all, died twenty years earlier; but the character of Mr. Ramsay in To a Lighthouse, who “never altered a disagreeable word to suit the pleasure or convenience of any mortal being, least of all his children,” would be based on Stephen. Indeed, their father was the principal bone of contention between Stephen’s daughters, for Vanessa, who adored him, suffered a nervous breakdown upon his death while Virginia went off on a holiday excursion. Daldrey’s film implies that Vanessa’s children separate the sisters (the Woolfs are childless); but, from Vanessa’s point of view, she was unable ever to share with Virginia her profound sense of loss over the death of their father. Stephen, however differently, remained at the center of both their consciousnesses. One imagines that Woolf’s suicide, overdetermined as are most suicides, owed something to her ongoing quarrel with this difficult and daunting and now deceased parent.
Kidman makes up for a lot. She and Stephen Dillane, excellent as Leonard, portray a marriage with the complexity that is its due. Kidman’s acting is not only finely etched, it has a lyrical dimension. At one point, asked by her niece what happens when one dies, Woolf responds that one returns to where one came from; when Woolf commits suicide by entering a lake, Kidman’s body language suggests that Woolf is going home. Kidman’s Woolf is gracious and poised in the midst of outrageous anguish and disappointment. Kidman fully merited the Oscar, the British Film Academy Award, and the Golden Globe she won for it, along with the best actress prize at Berlin that she shared with her co-stars, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep.
Whom do these other actresses play in their own separate plot-lines that are interwoven with one another and Kidman’s Woolf? Don’t ask, and I won’t tell. Suffice it to say, one takes place in the early 1950s, and the other in the present; and while Woolf is working hard at composing Mrs. Dalloway, another is reading it for the first time and overidentifying with it, and still another seems somehow to be living bits and pieces of it. Moore, not at her best here, makes the 1950s thread of the plot unconvincing, although one doesn’t know how such rank soap opera could have been better handled; John C. Reilly, as her clueless spouse, and Toni Collette, as her addle-brained, cancer-ridden best friend, give even worse performances. Then there is the Streep strand. Oy! Somehow, the woman she plays is named Clarissa Vaughan, and her best male friend, who is sick, is in the habit of addressing her as “Mrs. Dalloway.” But wait! Not only is she possibly, improbably named Clarissa (it’s also possible that she simply calls herself this, after the novel), but her lover’s name is Sally—as in Sally Seton, Clarissa’s bohemian friend prior to Clarissa’s becoming Mrs. Dalloway. (Or does this Lester woman, whom Allison Janney abominably plays, merely call herself Sally to extend the role of the novel in her and her Clarissa’s lives?) But wait again! Richard, whose care has long been the focus of Clarissa’s life (they were once, briefly, lovers—taking their cue from Virginia Woolf’s bisexuality, each of the other two parts of the film are bisexually oriented), opts for an end to himself à la Septimus Warren Smith, coincidentally also a poet, in Mrs. Dalloway. Just tell me the point at which, for you, credibility goes snap!
At least Richard, Clarissa Vaughan’s friend, isn’t a shell-shocked war veteran; he is sick, instead, with AIDS. But he goes over the window sill just the same.
All this is ludicrous, of course; but the trickiest trick is yet to come. It turns out that Richard is the son of the character that Julianne Moore plays—a woman who, unhappy in her conventional life, abandoned spouse and kids, making Richard, it appears, angry at her for life. This also is miserable to contemplate. A boy would feel abandoned; a grown-up, though, should attempt to understand. He’s a writer, after all; hasn’t this crybaby read Ibsen’s A Doll’s House? Or Handkë’s Die Linkshändige Frau?
Needless to say, this unexpected crisscrossing of two of the film’s parts is very clever. It’s stupid, too, since it upsets the balance of all the ways the three parts interrelate while remaining separate and distinct. Daldrey has said that his aim in making the film was to celebrate the impact that reading can have on people’s lives; isn’t the trick revelation counterproductive to the unifying influence of this theme? It’s one coincidence too many. I’m happy that this soap opera restored Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to best-seller lists; but are people (re)reading To the Lighthouse as well?
The Streep part is not without some merit. A number of gay characters appear, male and female, and not one is a stereotype. Although Claire Danes as Clarissa’s twenty-year-old daughter is, as usual, inept, she strikes a note of grace towards the end. (No such luck with Ed Harris as Richard: one of the worst performances imaginable.) Then there is Streep, whose acting is brilliant, captivating and spirited. This is her finest performance in many a moon. It falls short of Kidman’s through no fault of Streep’s; whereas Kidman could deepen the soap opera stuff that the script dealt her by drawing on (through letters and novels) the real Virginia Woolf, Streep was stuck with the script—and the silly story it was based on. It’s astonishing what loathsome sub-literature Streep is able to transcend here to the extent that she does.
In this dull film, Kidman and Streep shine.
Please see, elsewhere on this site, my essay on a film that beautifully relates Virginia Woolf’s writing to the film’s themes, Under the Sand. See category film reviews.