Stephen Daldry sees dead people. In Billy Elliot – his film-directing debut – a gifted boy was visited by his ma's ghost. In The Hours, adapted from Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer prize-winning novel, another mother proves even more haunting. The whole thing, in fact, is wall-to-wall with the deceased and dying; with suicide notes and echoing blasts from the past. A preoccupation with death is often seen as morbid, but Billy Elliot did great business, while The Hours is being hyped (especially in the States) as the film of the year. What can one say? The man's got a sixth sense.
Still, it can't have been an easy sell. Cunningham's novel offers a day in the life of three women, each entangled, in some way, with Virginia Woolf's 1925 classic, Mrs Dalloway. The latter is about a middle-aged socialite, Clarissa Dalloway, who ultimately decides to cling to life, and a young, war-damaged poet, Septimus Warren Smith, who, in an equally euphoric moment, throws it away. Taking what you might call a Cubist approach, Cunningham uses details from Woolf's biography to make sense of this plot; tries to show its impact on female readers; and to offer his own updated version. And bungs in three tantalising Sapphic kisses to boot. What a smart alec.
As it happens, the portraits that he interweaves – unstable Woolf, about to give birth to Mrs Dalloway; shy housewife Laura, gobbling up said novel in 1950s LA; party-giving publisher, Clarissa, nicknamed "Mrs Dalloway", in New York, 2001 – are fluid as egg-yolk. But suicide, sexual taboos, and the domino effect of literature – how could a movie possibly juggle such themes with the same finesse?
The film's poster addresses this problem with admirable shallowness, showing a smiling Meryl Streep in sunglasses; a post-coital Julianne Moore, hand hovering around bright-red mouth; and Nicole Kidman, arms folded as if to say, "Don't mess with me". Think Nicole Farhi's spring collection, by way of Charlie's Angels. Meet Clarissa, Laura and Virginia. They love life so much that they're willing to die for it! Which one's your favourite?
If Kidman's Golden Globe award is anything to go by, not to mention this week's Oscar nomination, Virginia is ahead by a nose (literally, thanks to the make-up department). But why all the fuss? Kidman's Woolf – soaking up a tumultuous visit from sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson) – is always watchable, but the performance is essentially a series of tics. Kidman conveys agitation by digging at her dress pocket; she aims for gravitas by speaking very S-L-O-W-L-Y. She has talked in interviews about Woolf's gift for "intellectual flirtation". All she can provide is an intellectual who flirts: Virginia delivers tart lines to husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane), then pouts. This is Richmond, 1923, but the atmosphere often feels closer to thirtysomething, 1988. At one point, a panicked Vanessa asks: "What are you saying?" You all but expect Virginia to whisper huskily, "You tell me".
All this, of course, is as much the fault of the scriptwriter, David Hare, as Kidman. Just like Richard Eyre with Iris Murdoch, he wants to show Woolf as some sort of swing-out sister. In Cunningham's novel, Woolf plans a flit to London, and is intercepted by Leonard as she dawdles in front of a shop. Hare shifts this low-key episode to an oh-so-symbolic station platform, and turns it into a furious Debate about Liberty – Leonard representing sanity and the Establishment; Virginia mad, cosmopolitan free spirits ("I'm dying in this town").
Forced to bear all this dramatic weight, Woolf's declaration of independence actually buckles at the knees. We see Woolf drown herself at the start of the film, and those unfamiliar with her biography, and/or South-east rivers, will probably assume that she planted herself in the Thames soon after this chat – killed off by the hated Richmond. In fact, she died 18 years later, in Sussex, something the film, having set up a superficial dichotomy between city and suburb, can make no sense of.
Meryl Streep's sections are similarly frustrating. To be fair, Clarissa Vaughan (celebrating the fact that her gay, Aids-ridden friend Richard, has won a poetry prize) is a tad vague, even in the book. Given that the publishing is obviously a sideline, where does she get her money from? What made her, in the space of a few years, break off a relationship with Richard, have a child with a sperm donor, and embark on her first, and only, affair with a woman?
But instead of tackling this, Hare just tries to make her more "likeable". This Clarissa is generous and gushy, crying when Richard's ex-lover, Louis (Jeff Daniels), comes round unexpectedly for tea. In the novel, it's Louis who dissolves. Maybe Daldry wanted to give Streep more to "do", but it backfires. All of a jingle-jangle, she's just irritating, the archetypal (over-) sensitive woman. You find yourself wondering if she's menopausal, a concept that goes totally against Woolf's grain. Hormones create predictable behaviour patterns; Woolf's characters are tremulous simply because they're living creatures who've realised it's possible to die.
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Thank God, then, for Laura Brown (married to a kind man; pregnant with her second child), whose brand of panic is mercurial in just this way. As in Todd Haynes's Safe, Julianne Moore moves through neat suburban spaces as if tiptoeing across acres of broken glass. The difference, this time, is that she has a witness – Richie (Jack Rovello), her adoring, anxious young son.
As seen through Seamus McGarvey's lens, everything about post-war LA appears bizarre – half-illuminated aquarium, half-Good Housekeeping illustration. Laura's crisis is brought on by a visit from her neighbour, Kitty (Toni Collette), who pops over, looking stiff and clean as a meringue. As soon as she sits down, though, she crumples, admitting she has a "growth" in her uterus, and rootless Laura kisses her, out of grief and desire. Of the three kisses in The Hours, this is by far the most "trivial" (Kitty brushes it off with the words, "You're sweet"). It's also the most erotic; a twilight-zone smacker that comes out of the blue and knocks you for six.
Where does that leave us? So much about The Hours is oppressively cosy. Like many films about creative, "modern" females (Iris, Frida), it features lesbianism, but ends as a hymn to the enduring heterosexual marriage. Servants, too, are treated as a joke – for all the postmodern wizardry, there's a real Upstairs Downstairs divide.
And yet, it's a must-see. Mainstream epics routinely privilege the father-son bond, and invariably come bursting at the seams with glamorised swordplay or shoot-outs. In The Hours, patriarchs barely figure (literally, in the case of Clarissa's daughter), and the only phallic weapon on display is Virginia's pen.
Most important of all, it contains Laura Brown, a character who illuminates every scene that she blunders into, a character who causes devastation, but is never judged good or bad. This ghost of a mother will last longer than any Oscar din; which is to say, she's worthy of Woolf. More than the sum of her parts, she makes the hours fly by.
Anthony Quinn is away
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