It's all about me

Culture | The Hours offers a bitter, venomous form of nihilism that goes beyond simple feminism

Issue: "Portable Pentagon," March 1, 2003

The Hours is gaining the sort of critical momentum of which studio marketers dream. Because the film had the potential to be a very difficult sell, Paramount released The Hours selectively last year just in time for Oscar consideration, then slowly built up the number of theaters in which it was showing over the past few weeks-coinciding neatly with the Hollywood awards season.

Two Golden Globe awards (including Best Picture) and nine Oscar nominations later, the strategy seems to have worked. It's a film that critics have almost universally praised, and it has an illustrious pedigree. The Hours is based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer PrizeÐwinning novel of the same name; it's directed by previous Oscar nominee Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot); and it boasts a cast that's not only headlined by Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, but that also features the likes of Ed Harris, John C. Reilly, and Miranda Richardson.

And yet, all of the accolades and talent involved simply help obscure just how pernicious The Hours is. The story is well acted, cleverly told-and utterly destructive.

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The admittedly clever plot of The Hours (rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some disturbing images, and brief bad language) follows three separate but interwoven stories, all of which take place during a single day. Ms. Kidman plays author Virginia Woolf in 1923, the year she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, a novel that figures prominently in the story. Ms. Moore is Laura, a wife and mother in 1951 Southern California, soon to give birth to her second child. The third-and central-story is a modern-day tale that revolves around Clarissa Vaughan, played by Ms. Streep. Clarissa is a lesbian with a live-in girlfriend and a college-age daughter.

The Hours actually begins in 1941, on the day that Virginia Woolf commits suicide by filling her pockets with rocks and walking into the Ouse River. This desperate act by a woman on the brink of madness sets the tone for the rest of the film. As depressing as this may seem, it's not meant to be so in the context of this film's world. Instead, Woolf's death is an act of defiance-a choice as valid as, and in some ways more courageous than, life.

The "days" each of the three main characters experience in the plot mirror each other in certain ways. Woolf is just getting started on her book, but is chafing against her confined existence in Richmond, a suburb of London. She and her husband moved there from the city for Woolf's health, but this quiet existence is odious to her. Laura too lives in a quiet suburb, an almost surreal version of postwar California. Laura has a husband who dotes on her and a son who craves her attention, but she is drowning in her own depression. (Her unhappiness is never fully explained, but she shares a lengthy kiss with a female neighbor, hinting at repressed lesbianism.)

Clarissa's is the story that ties them all together. A Manhattan editor, Clarissa-like Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway-is planning a party. The event is to honor her friend and onetime lover Richard Brown, a poet dying of AIDS (after their affair, both moved on to same-sex partners). On this day, Richard is to receive a sought-after poetry prize. He's been living as a recluse in a dingy apartment, and seems to be seen only by Clarissa.

Although death is the ultimate signifier of the free and uninhibited will in The Hours, the overarching theme is simpler: finding personal happiness at the expense of everything-and everyone-else. Laura, we learn toward the end of the film, later leaves her husband and two children. She moves to Canada and never looks back, and, even as an old woman, is unapologetic. And, according to the film, she shouldn't need to apologize. "It's what you can bear," she says. "And there it is. No one is going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life."

These lines echo Woolf's own sentiments expressed earlier in the film (although with a different final outcome): "If it is a choice between Richmond (her suburban 'prison') or death, I choose death."

Feminist Gloria Steinem, in a piece about The Hours in the Los Angeles Times, worries that blockheaded viewers (she singles out males) will "demonize" Laura for her actions. It's a valid concern. It's hard not to come to the conclusion that a woman who has abandoned her family simply because she's not happy in their company has done something horribly wrong.

This is all a bitter, venomous form of nihilism that goes beyond simple feminism. It goes further, I think, than Woolf does in her own writings, which are tinged with guilt, doubt, and regret-all unpleasant emotions that the filmmakers here seek to erase.


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