Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:11 pm 
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The poor actors

Pity the poor actors. Their work is so good in Stephen Daldry's "The Hours." Julienne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Ed Harris, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Dellane, John C. Reilly, all perform splendidly in the three separate, intercut stories the movie tells. But what the devil do these three stories have to do with each other? That was the question that nagged me when I read Michael Cunningham's book. It's not necessarily true by any means that three stories that alternate through the course of a novel make for a richer mix than a single story. Jane Austen did extremely well in her novels with just one.

The three stories are as follows. First, there is Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), famous English novelist, writer, wife of Leonard Woolf, author, editor, manager of the Hogarth Press. Virginia Woolf, whose later suicide we glimpse at the outset, is going through a single day in the 1920's, during which she is beginning a novel that is going to be famous: "Mrs. Dalloway." In the novel, Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway, is going to die, Mrs. Woolf has decided, a suicide, over something seemingly trivial. But before that, through most of the novel, which takes place in a single day, Mrs. Dalloway is going to be preparing to give a party. Mrs. Woolf is crazy, neurotic. She and Leonard Woolf live in the suburbs, but Mrs. Woolf wants to go back to living in London.

Second, there is a woman in the present named Clarissa (Meryl Streep), called by some "Mrs. Dalloway," in honor of the novel, and because her given name is Clarissa. This second "Mrs. Dalloway" is preparing to give a party for Richard Brown, a poet with AIDS (Ed Harris, shaky and sick looking, but quite energetic enough to upstage even Meryl Streep), whom she's long cared for and been close to, and who's just won a big prize for his life's work. He threatens not to attend. He's crazy, neurotic. He's gay. She's lesbian. She has a lover, and a daughter (Claire Danes), and she lives in New York. She has begun the day (like the Mrs. Dalloway in the novel) by buying flowers for the party.

Third, in the 1950's, in between the events of the other two stories, a woman named Laura Brown (Julienne Moore) with a small boy in southern California is spending her day baking a birthday cake for her husband, a simple man (John C. Reilly) who has just driven to work in one of those perfect and immaculate 1950's American cars everyone drives in movies about the 1950's nowadays. She is crazy, neurotic. She's five months pregnant. She's reading Woolf's novel, "Mrs. Dalloway," which she's gotten out of the library. She too is preparing for a party, a little celebration of her husband's birthday, but she seems unable to cope, even with such a simple thing as baking a cake. Her little boy clearly senses this.

There is a common thread here: suicide. Virginia Woolf is going to do it, her character in "Mrs. Dalloway" is going to do it, the poet played by Ed Harris is going to do it, and the lady baking the birthday cake, who turns out to be the poet's mother, wants to do it, though in the end she can't manage it. (Neuroses and bisexuality are also common threads.)

During the pathetic birthday incident, the mother leaves off her little boy with a babysitter while she checks into a hotel to take an overdose of pills. But her pregnancy makes it impossible for her to follow through. She retrieves the boy and returns to serve dinner.

The Meryl Streep episode is the central one, and Julienne Moore's is secondary. But oddly enough, perhaps because Nicole Kidman's performance as Virginia Woolf is so unprecedented for her and so wonderfully mysterious and self contained, and also perhaps because the director, Daldry, is English, the Woolf episode seems the most authentic and the most natural. At the opposite extreme in the 1950's episode Julienne Moore is stuck with being cloyingly tragic in another false, stagy suburban setting like Todd Haynes' Newark in" Far from Heaven." Nonetheless the fact remains that the Virginia Woolf story really has nothing much to do with the other two.

It's inevitable that we should compare the three actresses, and they're all good. Streep gives a rich and wonderful performance, but Kidman's is the one that sticks in our mind, the one we'd like to have seen more of. Julienne Moore is the least satisfying here. She started out brilliantly as the contemporary stressed out housewife in Todd Haynes' earlier "Safe," but her performances need a more complex context than she gets this time. Her sad clown face begins to seem sickeningly sweet.

Daldry clicks back and forth between stories at first a great deal more rapidly than the Michael Cunningham novel: at one point we suddenly see all three women arranging flowers, one-two-three. This gets us used to the convention of alternating time zones very skillfully, but given the arbitrary linkage of the stories, it's a bit like a dog standing on two legs: the novel's whole scheme-work is a contrivance. What's the point of it all? Three women in different eras all have something to do with Virginia Woolf. Yes, well...Virginia Woolf's own life would, wouldn't it? One can't help feeling the author couldn't find enough juice in any one story and for that reason had to run three simultaneously. In the end the emotional impact is muted. Ed Harris slides out a window. So what? His mother—Julienne Moore in heavy, not very successful makeup as an old person, turns up that night and tells Meryl Streep her pathetic story. So what? Daldry has made a beautiful movie, with excellent acting, about a lot of things, that all together add up to not so much because the novel David Hare has adapted is too contrived. One is left with vague puzzlement, and the inevitable mild depression that must result from exposure to three suicides in the course of a single movie.

January 11, 2003

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