Well, fortunately, one can have a favorite movie and admit that it’s not the “best”. I dearly love The Hours, of course, but I understand that there are little things here and there that detract from the overall quality of the picture. More on those later.
There are so many wonderful things happening in this movie. Director Stephen Frears and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey make wonderfully beautiful compositions. Virginia surrounded by the rough drafts of her work, Richard staring out the window while contemplating Laura, the jump, the drowning: all beautiful, all haunting. Costume designer Ann Roth has the challenge of evoking three different time periods, and she ably delivers. The costumes for Meryl Streep are an especial standout, the perfect ensemble for an arty New York socialite.
Michael Cunningham’s source novel was not an easy one to adapt. Much of the “action” involves the three protagonists reflecting on their environment, or their past, or their future, or the flowers. Like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, it is written as a stream of consciousness, abruptly leaping from one character’s thoughts to another. David Hare does an admirable job of bringing all of this believably to the screen, while also making each of the women into an individual. (I confess, in the novel, everyone seems to be, more or less, the same unhappy, insecure person)
And the acting! Ed Harris is tragic as the poet stricken with AIDS, knowing his mind, his art, his life is going, yet unable to stop it. Meryl Streep is Clarissa Vaughan, the modern Mrs. Dalloway, and she is funny in her flightier moments and heartbreaking in her more sobering ones. Eileen Atkins and Toni Collette are mere cameos, but both are splendid in their roles. Collette actually steals the show, and the more I watch the film, the more enamored am I of her performance. Kitty is real to her, and so she is real to us.
Nicole Kidman’s legendary portrayal of Virginia Woolf is more than the talk of that damned nose would have you believe. Of the three leads, hers is the best performance. Her desperation for London life is understandable, but Kidman never forgets that Woolf was an altogether humorous woman. Smiling slyly, secretly at the maids and the family, there is a mischievous charm to Virginia that is immediately attractive. She is equally matched by the understated and brilliant performance of Stephen Dillane (as Leonard Woolf) and the calculatedly exaggerated posturing of Miranda Richardson (as her sister, Vanessa Bell).
And now we come to the problem. The 1950s storyline is simple: the trapped housewife wanting to get away from it all. It’s been done to death, but if all the elements are in play, even the stalest of routines can seem fresh. Not so here. Daldry has his actors deliver their roles as though to a theatre audience, with sweeping gestures and “dramatic” breakdowns. Julianne Moore, an actress I usually like, is…well, her performance as Laura Brown is a little embarrassing. It’s not a very good, mostly crying and smiling bravely. “What a performance!” we should be thinking. “Where’s Meryl?” we say instead. Only Collette and John C. Reilly breathe life into this dull, underwritten segment. Moore, at least, is able to acquit herself thanks to the final sequence between Clarissa and Elderly Laura.
And I almost forgot to mention the beautiful score by Philip Glass! It is haunting and mesmerizing, though at times a little too intense for what it is underscoring. Its beauty cannot be called into question, however, and it is further evidence that Glass stands alongside such legends as Beethoven and Schubert in the realm of orchestral music.
There is much to love and admire about The Hours. But was it the Best Picture of 2002?
The Hours AT THE OSCARS
Stephen Daldry, Best Director
Nicole Kidman, Best Actress (WON)
Ed Harris, Best Supporting Actor
Julianne Moore, Best Supporting Actress
Philip Glass, Best Original Score
Ann Roth, Best Costume Design
Peter Boyle, Best Editing