On Revisiting “The Hours” Ten Years Later

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This Catch-Up is written by Chelsea Cristene

The Hours
Year of Release: 2002
Rating: PG-13 for mature themes and mild language.
Currently Streaming on Netflix?: Yes.
Spoilers: Virginia Woolf dies at the end. Minor plot spoilers re: Laura Brown.

When I first watched The Hours I was just sixteen years old and trying to see as many Oscar-nominated movies as I could before the 75th Academy Awards – and what a year it was! Adaptation, Chicago, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Pianist…but The Hours was the only film that ended with me openly weeping upon leaving the theatre, overcome by what I had just seen.

The Hours, an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s 1999 novel, stars Nicole Kidman as troubled author Virginia Woolf living in a 1920s London suburb, Julianne Moore as 1950s housewife Laura Brown living in Los Angeles, and Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughn, living in New York City in 2001. Streep’s character in particular is any Virginia Woolf fan’s dream, as Clarissa Vaughn is essentially a modern version of Mrs. Dalloway’s titular heroine with some slight alterations: Whereas Clarissa Dalloway’s summer fling with Sally Seton lies permanently in the past, Clarissa Vaughn is an openly gay woman partnered with her own Sally (Allison Janey), and the two raise a daughter, Julia (Claire Danes), together.

The film, like the novel, explores the lives of these three characters as they transcend time and place to parallel and intertwine with one another. But of course, staying true to Mrs. Dalloway’s form, all events in the film occur during a single day. On that singular day in the theatre ten years ago, I lost myself in David Hare’s script (it’s always magic to see such an interior book come alive on the screen), Philip Glass’s driving, insistent score, and the quiet power of three of the greatest actresses alive today. I was a teenager cultivating a budding interest in gender and sexuality and hungry to read everything Virginia Woolf had ever written. The hours in my life have since moved forward, leading me to watch this film from behind very different eyes ten years later.

In one of The Hours’ more delicate scenes, Virginia and her niece Angelica find a dying bird in the garden. Angelica’s brothers refer to the bird as a “he,” but Aunt Virginia knows better. Is it a she? the young Angelica timidly asks, and the three main characters likewise find their female voices over the course of the film. It was after my exposure to feminist literature in college (and later as an English teacher) that the female voices of Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown truly became more than tropes of the suffering artist or the bored housewife. Teaching Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” allowed me to better understand the pain Woolf experienced under Weir Mitchell’s inhumane rest cure, the series of frustrations and limitations that Kidman’s character rejects by fleeing to the train station and delivering the line that very well may have won her the Oscar: If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you that I wrestle alone, in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know. Only I can understand my own condition. Laura Brown similarly flees her own suffocating life by racing to a hotel to commit suicide – though she, unlike Woolf, cannot bring herself to end it all. Instead, she makes a decision to “choose life,” by forming a plan later that evening: she will create a new life for herself in Toronto, leaving her husband and children behind. Laura sees death and despair in the same role that Kitty, her possibly infertile neighbor, so idealizes (I don’t think you can call yourself a woman until you’re a mother.) Ultimately, both women struggle with inadequately fitting Betty Friedan’s “mystique,” – Kitty due to medical complications, Laura due to a clear denial of self. What does it mean to regret, she later asks Clarissa Vaughn, when you have no choice?

Clarissa Vaughn’s character is someone I’ve learned to value well beyond her basic function as Mrs. Dalloway’s double. She busies herself with schedules and planning and floral arrangements — parties to cover the silence — as a distraction from the inevitable: Richard’s death. Clarissa brings to the screen the tendency in all of us, to some degree, to push down life’s unpleasantries under decor and distraction, to churn through the present so methodically that the past cannot possibly surface. But like there are cracks in Clarissa’s foundation. Her friend Richard is not simply an older man dying of AIDS; he is the living history of the young man she fell in love with when she was just eighteen. When Richard’s ex-lover Louis (Jeff Daniels) arrives for the party, the past becomes too real. Louis tells Clarissa that he recently returned to Wellfleet, the site of so much young passion and conflict (It was you [Richard] stayed with, Clarissa nods, I had one summer) and she finally unravels, sobbing, sliding down the dishwasher, and fiddling with her clanking bracelets in what is easily my favorite scene of the movie. I think you’re courageous, Clarissa tells Louis, to face the fact that we have lost those feelings forever. I wasn’t able to fully understand the magnitude of this scene before moving through my own young adulthood, loving and fighting with members of a close-knit circle only to later experience the shock and intensity when all of the ghosts assemble in the present. In revisiting a past that no longer exists, Clarissa faces the one thing she has so desperately sought to avoid: death.

But after she composes herself, Clarissa opens the door to receive her daughter, Julia, and the two share a tender moment. The old ghost of Louis is replaced by Julia’s youth and sense of possibility, and as mother and daughter lie snuggled up together on the bed, Clarissa is able to relive the same heartbreaking memories with a sudden exuberance:

I remember one morning getting up at dawn, there was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling? And I remember thinking to myself: So, this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course there will always be more. It never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment. Right then.

Rewatching that scene today, I, like Clarissa, can acknowledge the contradictory nature of memory. There is pain in the loss, but joy because the moment did exist. I also think of my own mother and am able, like Julia, to acknowledge her past: All you’re saying, Julia realizes, is that you were once young. Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown were able to prolong their respective happiness by choosing city over suburban life, individual direction instead of gendered norms. Clarissa’s challenge lies now in capturing more moments of happiness as her life moves forward, embracing her immediate present instead of inventing distraction, and creating meaning in the hours that she is given.

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