‘The Hours’ was the working title of Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, a stream-of-consciousness novel from 1925 about an Englishwoman from the upper middle class who spent her day preparing a party. Michael Cunningham adopted ‘The Hours’ as suitable title for his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel of 1999 in which he juxtaposed the lives of three women living in different places and times: Virginia Woolf, the author, working on ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ in her Richmond home in 1923; Laura Brown, a housewife and mother, preparing a birthday cake for her husband and reading ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ in a Los Angeles suburb in 1951; and Clarissa Vaughan, an editor in a publishing house, organising a party for her award-winning gay friend, who is terminally ill with AIDS and who jokingly calls her Mrs. Dalloway, in today’s New York (thus in the late 1990s).
In 2002 director Stephen Daldry adapted Michael Cunningham’s novel for the screen using the screenplay written by David Hare. The main characters of ‘The Hours’ are impersonated by Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, Julianne Moore as Laura Brown, Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughan and Ed Harris as Richard “Richie” Brown. The film received nine Oscar nominations in 2003, but only Nicole Kidman was actually awarded an Oscar as Best Actress.
The film – like the novel – shows three lives of women who find themselves caught in social conventions and in the obligations that family life brings about. Each one is unhappy in her way and wanting to break free.
Virginia Woolf is known to have been stricken both by depression and by mental illness which eventually led to her suicide. ‘The Hours’ actually begins and ends with Virginia Woolf drowning herself in the River Ouse in 1941, thus with her way of liberation from endless suffering. About twenty years earlier her mental problems had been the reason why her husband Leonard moved the household and business to Richmond, away from London and its bustle, in the first place. She kept feeling trapped and controlled in her home and tried to escape as shows a scene at the railway station of Richmond where Leonard Woolf confesses to Virginia his constant fear that she might kill herself. Her answer isn’t at all reassuring: ‘If it's a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death’.
Almost twenty years later the housewife Laura Brown finds herself trapped in a meaningless life, pregnant with her second child and doomed to taking care of house, husband and her children for the rest of her days. The ruined birthday cake for her husband that she prepared with her son symbolises Laura’s unfulfilled dreams and disappointed hopes. Her sick neighbour, who she kisses passionately on the lips to comfort her, makes her understand at last that she can’t go on pretending. When she leaves her six-year-old son with a neighbour, she is at the brink of making an end to her suffocating existence, but in her hotel room she falls asleep while reading ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and when she awakes she chooses a different way of liberation: she decides to give birth to her baby and then leave husband and children to start a new life elsewhere.
The editor Clarissa Vaughan openly lives the lesbian tendencies that Virginia Woolf as well as Laura Brown in their time either feared or suppressed. In college Clarissa had been the lover of Richie who had several gay relationships later on and who became a writer. In 2002 Richie is sick with AIDS and depressed although he has just been awarded a literary prize. Clarissa, who has been living with Sally for ten years and has a daughter by an anonymous donor, still cares about Richie and is deeply worried. While she prepares a big party for Richie, she feels uncertain about whether she should be angry at him or flattered by the fact that their love affair had inspired Richie to write the novel. When Clarissa arrives at his flat to pick him up for the party, Richie has come to a grave decision: he’s going to take his own life to liberate himself from agony. In fact, he jumps from the window of his flat.
The film is sad, sometimes confusing because of the alternating stories and times, but most of all it is revealing: the lives of women haven’t really changed that much over the past decades. The social conditions may be different today, especially as regards homosexuality or sexuality altogether, but essentially, the problems, worries and limitations are still the same and women endure them quietly as ever.
For those who prefer reading:
For those who prefer reading: