Adapted from Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Stephen Daldry’s The Hours treats Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) as a lesbian high priestess of our known universe, a literati Joan of Arc who dies so that a modern Saphic generation could reign supreme. United across the space-time continuum via Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Daldry’s oh-so-cute graphic matches, the women of The Hours become little more than sudsy abstractions of cross-generational female repression. Woolf soul sister Kate Chopin contemplated a similar illusion of intimacy with her regal The Awakening, in which dame Edna Pontellier opts for a terminal dip in the Atlantic despite her obligations to her Creole family. The Hours is a different kind of rant, a preposterous faux-feminist manifesto that blames the woes of the modern day female on her historical disconnectedness.
Inexplicably alienated from live-in girlfriend Sally (Allison Janney), New York City book editor Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) prepares a party for her best friend Richard (Ed Harris), an AIDS victim living in an under-lit apartment somewhere in the Meat Packing District. Daldry’s I’m-every-woman visual exhibitionism is less sticky than screenwriter David Hare’s spoken subtext. The director parades the paradox of unhappy hostesses throwing parties for their inner circles only to forget the hows and whys of female pain. “Always giving parties to cover the silence,” mutters Richard to his modern-day Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa and Richard exchange whines and make references to the film’s free-floating narrative (“I seem to have fallen out of time,” he says). The resulting melodrama is not unlike what happens when two acting pros take to the Broadway stage for a reductive Angels in America performance.
Back in time, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) bakes a cake. Pregnant with her second child, she can’t seem to get past the first page of Mrs. Dalloway. Neighbor Kitty (Toni Collette) comes over, winces at literature, screams uterine cyst, laughs at Laura’s flaccid cake and welcomes a kiss on the mouth from her friend. If Daldry’s females are mere cartoonish representations of repressed ’50s housewives then Todd Haynes’s women from Far from Heaven are the real deal—remarkable affronts to the culture that reduced them by their sex. Moore plays her oppression straight with shades of Safe. Collette, on the other hand, wears it all like a neon sign. Daldry emphasizes Laura’s problems with a dubious surrealist flourish (water retention anyone?) while prefiguring her little boy’s “specialness” via a ludicrous Lincoln Logs sequence.
Mrs. Woolf (Nicole Kidman) lives in the country with her doting husband and hot-tempered servants. In Kidman’s hands, Woolf is a fabulous mess to watch. The actress chillingly embodies Woolf’s every ache and resentment though she’s ultimately no match for the screenplay’s spoon-fed dialogue, not to mention the Philip Glass cavalcade of sound. Virginia wants to kill Mrs. Dalloway and while she remains uncertain as to why her heroine must die, she is suddenly enlightened as if merely to provide the spectator with a point of connectivity between the film’s three suicidal heroines. “It’s contrast,” she says (you may reply with a resounding “duh!”). Soon after sharing a transcendental moment with a dead bird, Virginia turns messianic. The death of Chopin’s Edna Pontellier was entirely self-serving. The Hours goes one step further, arrogantly suggesting that Clarissa has no reason to suffer because Woolf died for her right to kiss a woman and have a test-tube baby. Women are not this simple. Todd Haynes knows that. Daldry doesn’t. Wanna guess which film will shine on Oscar night?
Paramount Home Entertainment presents The Hours in its original 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen on this DVD edition of the film. The presentation is a little on the grainy side-which means blacks aren’t as deep as some may desire-but there’s something to be said about the film-like tonality of the transfer. The only genuine drawback is the frequent edge enhancement-though the haloing effects aren’t particularly large, the edges around the film’s actors often appear sharp and hallucinatory. Surprisingly, the Dolby Digital 5.0 Surround track is not as abrasive as one might expect. The balance between Glass’s score, the film’s heavy use of dialogue and sound effects is certainly an intimate one.
First up are two heavyweight commentary tracks. Actresses Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep share their thoughts on the first. Because all three were recorded separately, there’s an unfortunate lack of camaraderie to the composite recording. Luckily, each actress reveals a unique obsession with the project: Kidman disturbingly dissects every aspect of the acting process; Moore shows unending devotion to the film’s tonality and loyalty to Michael Cunningham’s novel; and Streep, not surprisingly, reveals her fondness for evoking authentic human behavior through her "meat-and-potatoes" character. A second commentary track with director Stephen Daldry and Cunningham, is perhaps a bit more full-bodied. Because of his background in theater, Daldry is very much concerned with behavioral language. Cunningham, though, is much easier to listen to. His devotion to the film is obvious, but it’s interesting to take in his little quibbles, none more humorous than the two-line scene he shared with Streep that was subsequently cut.
A two-minute introduction by Daldry precedes a collection of four consistently engaging and fascinating featurettes. Not only does the featurette "Three Women" (Robert Altman be damned!) include some incredible behind-the-scenes footage (Kidman is shown laughing during her suicide scene), but it’s more elegantly and emotionally edited than the film itself. "The Mind and Times of Virginia Woolf" compiles a series of rare photographs and interviews with scholars to present a complex biographical and psychological portrait of a tortured genius. This 25-minute featurette presents Woolf as a woman stifled by her parents’ Victorian lifestyle and, haunted by sexual abuse at the hands of her half-brother and liberated by the omnisexual exploits of the Bloomsbury Group. In "The Music of The Hours," composer Philip Glass challenges generic uses of music in film and discusses at length the density and weight of sound and how he wanted to create a sound that didn’t necessarily echo conventional ideas of death. Cunningham shares some lovely thoughts about the origins of his fascination with Virginia Woolf on "The Lives of Mrs. Dalloway," but the mood is instantly killed when screenwriter David Hare observes that "fidelity is achieved through promiscuity." Rounding out the disc’s features is the film’s theatrical trailer and a preview for How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days.
The high drama begins right away. A petal falls over the opening interactive menu and Kidman’s voice declares: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."