The Hours (2002)Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some disturbing images and brief language.
Starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Stephen Dillane.
LVJeff's Rating: 7/10
Photo ©Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.
Women Seeking Fulfillment
The Hours brings awareness to an issue often overlooked -- women's depression. I applaud this effort. Over the last century, society still hasn't found a way to show unconditional approval for a woman who wants to define her own role. Consequently, women often find themselves in a trap of unfulfillment before realizing it. Some women look back at their lives with regret; some wonder if they can still do something to obtain fulfillment; others don't even notice their chances slipping away.
In The Hours, three trapped women, each different in origin, illustrate how insidiously the situation can develop. They are tied together by Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's novel about a hostess whose proper exterior masks a troubled interior. The first story features Virginia Woolf herself (Nicole Kidman, unrecognizable in a prosthetic nose), in the wake of a nervous breakdown, writing Mrs. Dalloway in a 1920's London suburb under the watchful eye of her concerned husband (Stephen Dillane). The second story focuses on a 1950's Los Angeles housewife, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), who finds no room to breathe in an otherwise seemingly normal family; she reads Mrs. Dalloway for inspiration. The last story has a 2001 Mrs. Dalloway prototype, Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), on display, preparing a party for her friend, an AIDS-stricken poet (Ed Harris). The three threads intertwine as the movie follows these women throughout one day in each of their lives.
The movie is mostly a deft juggling act highlighting each woman's struggle to give meaning to her life. Because of Virginia's recent bouts with madness, her husband tries to build a stable environment for her, but she finds such a controlled evironment suffocating. Laura never wanted the life she now has -- with a devoted husband, one child, and another on the way. Clarissa has spent years devoting herself to caring for her dying friend, who realizes he has stayed alive only to make her happy -- he knows she has done nothing for herself, and that in itself is a trap. The three stories show how easily one can write one's life in to a corner of hopelessness.
The film's stark depiction of these traps works most of the time, but it is somewhat hampered by a self-conscious showiness. The movie feels important because it seems to want to be important. With its renowned actresses and serious themes, it tries a little too hard to be profound -- every conversation feels as if psychotherapy is the goal, every new character is an introduction to an alternate philosophy, every action repeated through the three threads seems to be loaded with some kind of symbolism. Being partially distracted by these elements is ultimately forgiveable, but the downbeat mood of the film may not be as easy to dismiss. A movie about finding a way to live shouldn't necessarily be so depressing, as if heavy-handedness lent weight to the lessons learned by the characters.
And although I'm pleased to see the issue of women's depression being tackled, I am wary of the movie's indirect suggestion about suicide as a way to solve such problems. The movie features not one, but three suicide attempts, two of which are successful. Suicide is not the answer, and The Hours doesn't say it is, but at the same time the film doesn't make that clear. I wish the filmmakers had opted not to include Viginia Woolf's suicide, which adds nothing to the story; in fact, it seems to negate the signs of hope experienced by one of the other characters.
Still, The Hours deserves a viewing in order to remind its audience of the uphill battle women wage to find fulfillment in the face of society's expectations as well as their own. Perhaps the movie's self-seriousness is appropriate; then again, I'd hate to think the road to contentment contains more reasons to cry than to smile.
©Jeffrey Chen, Jan. 2, 2003