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The Hours (2002)



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The Hours says nothing with great eloquence. The film relates the stories of three women, separated by time. One is the author of Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf. One reads the book, and the third has a life that strangely parallels it. The stories are ingeniously edited together in such a way as to highlight dramatic correlations and common themes. I loved the art and craft of the film. The acting is excellent across the board: Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, all fantastic. Most noteworthy amongst the supporting cast is Ed Harris, an AIDS victim in the latter stages of the disease. The cinematography is frequently beautiful, and the musical score is both dramatically effective and beautiful in its own right.

But what is the movie saying? It's certainly trying to say a lot, about women, about suicide, about dependence, happiness -- but for all its ambitions, I never got the sense that it had anything but a superficial understanding of humanity. I certainly don't think it has the understanding of women it purports to have, but given that I am not one, feel free to take that opinion with a grain of salt.

All three stories beg us to understand the women in them, but all three have wide gaps in the psychological profiles of their characters, such that it becomes difficult to empathize with them. The strongest of the three stories is that of Virginia Woolf, who, in the opening scene of the film, narrates a suicide note to her husband. She has wrestled with madness and feels another spell of it coming on. Rather than subject her husband to it, who she says has made her so very happy, she drowns herself in a river. Ostensibly, the film will latter chronicle her internal journey toward this end, but it does not. Her most revealing scene is a conversation with her husband at a train stop, in which they speak about her madness. We never actually see her madness, nor its nature, and as such, we are missing the critical section of her character arc. How does the train station scene lead to the perspective exhibited in the suicide note? What circumstances got her to the train station scene in the first place? The movie doesn't say.

Julianne Moore's story is a shallower one, and it's only a little more complete. She plays a housewife in the 1950s who is unhappy with her life but does not show it until she finally does something about it. This story gets away with more than it should: we can believe her character because I think we can all relate to being unhappy on the inside even when everything about our lives seems perfect on the outside. But again the film lapses: we never truly get inside her head except during a speech at the very end, and even then we are given the what of things and not the why.

Meryl Streep's story seems to hinge on the dependence she has on Richard, an AIDS patient who is apparently only staying alive because she needs him. The film never hints at why she needs him or what she needs him for. Her life does not quite seem real: she appears to exist to organize a party, and except for characters that show up out of her past, she seems not have a life that extends beyond this singular purpose. Like the other characters of the movie, with the exception of Ed Harris's, she is and remains an enigma.

The Hours earned many accolades at the Oscars -- four acting nominations, including a win by Kidman, plus nominations for picture, director, screenplay, and score. It deserves most of those nominations, but not Best Picture or Best Adapted Screenplay: the film is beautifully but it is hollow, lacking heart, humanity, and understanding. True, better films have accomplished less, but The Hours so clearly purports to say important things when it does not. The clothes have no emperor. Such is my admiration for the clothes, however, that I have to concede a mildly positive rating in spite of my crippling objections.