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?