Too Quiet Desperation
Women live lives of quiet desperation, forever in the thrall of their obeisance to the men and children who depend upon their tender loving care. At least they do in the stately, elegant, slightly too precise films of late December, when Academy members start paying attention to the product of their industry and the critics’ groups start passing out their awards candy. Beautifully produced, impeccably acted films about women quietly enduring the fate of their gender or quietly succumbing to it do very well in this arena, an unconsciously guilty reaction, perhaps, to its smothering of more puissant female voices.
It would be inaccurate to say that there’s anything actually wrong with The Hours, and churlish to suggest that this beautifully produced, impeccably acted film is anything less than a masterpiece. But what the hell? The story of three women, their lives touched in some way by the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs. Dalloway, is so achingly earnest in its desire to do well by its subjects that it struggles to keep them on the very pedestal they wish to climb down from.
Nicole Kidman (The Others, Moulin Rouge), famously transformed for the screen into a slightly too dowdy Virginia Woolf, is allowed, of the three, to indulge in the most spirited rebellion against the box society places her in, but of course, she’s crazy, and rebellion is hardly unexpected. Her Virginia, struggling in the early 1920s to write Mrs. Dalloway in an exile from London imposed for the supposed sake of her sanity, mopes beautifully and sucks at the more lively life around her — as during a visit from her sister (Miranda Richardson: Chicken Run, Sleepy Hollow) and her rowdy children. Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) and screenwriter David Hare (adapting Michael Cunningham’s novel) give Kidman some astonishingly lovely moments — attending the funeral of a small bird arranged by her fairy-like young niece, a poignant admonition to the ever-suicidal Woolf, or perhaps an invitation to give in to that impulse — but they handle her with kid gloves. Virginia’s anger at the world is never treated like the rage it is, but instead the romantic, poetic brooding of The Artist.
But it’s unseemly to suggest that women should give vent to their rage, for that would have ruined this fine film.
Julianne Moore (Far from Heaven, The Shipping News) as Laura Brown, a housewife in 1950s Los Angeles, is constrained the most… but of course constraint is what Moore does best, so she can hardly be faulted for that. But one wishes her tale — of the tiny, seemingly inconsequential nothing that drives her beyond the pale expected of a prim housewife, perhaps slightly egged on by her reading of Mrs. Dalloway — wasn’t quite so prim and constrained as Laura herself is, neatly arranged and tidily concluded, with enough female drama and restrained womanly angst to keep its female audience nodding in sympathy but little allowance for real feeling beyond the cliché of the frustrated housewife. Her sad ending is all her own fault, of course, despite the seeming stamp of approval she receives from the film. Laura may do what she wants, eventually, but she can’t also expect to reap happiness from it. Which is true enough, sometimes, in the real world, but a little disingenuous for a film that wants to remind us to suck the marrow out of life.
Meryl Streep (Adaptation, A.I. Artificial Intelligence) as Clarissa Vaughan, a New Yorker of today, would seem to be a model of modern feminism: She’s a successful book editor, she’s raised a lovely and cheerful child (Claire Danes: Igby Goes Down, Les Misérables) without a husband, and she lives with her lesbian lover (Allison Janney: Nurse Betty, American Beauty). But Clarissa is nothing but a Mrs. Dalloway for today, so devoted to the needs of others — like her friend Richard (Ed Harris: A Beautiful Mind, Enemy at the Gates), a poet dying of AIDS — that she neglects her own welfare. For this we are at least invited to pity her — she’s so happy, and yet so sad — but her self-sacrifice is nearly a parody, or it would be if the deep-down suggestion of The Hours weren’t that the destiny of the female of the species, whether gay or straight, professional or homemaker, is to look back on life with regret at having given so much to others and so little to oneself, no matter what choices she’s made.
But to suggest that it isn’t, of course, would be to remove the power of grief that stately, elegant films like The Hours wish to wield over us.