When I finished watching Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, I was plagued by a feeling of ambivalence. Bookended by the image of Virginia Woolf’s slow and resolute tread into the River Ouse, the plot weaves in-and-out of the lives of three women: Woolf (Nicole Kidman) in 1923, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) in 1951 and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) in 2001. Switching off the television after the final scene and staring at the dark screen, I sat on the couch quietly deciding how I felt about the film. This was two weeks ago. I’m still trying to make that decision.
In the tradition of Mrs. Dalloway, the plot traces one day in the lives of Virginia (writing her masterpiece), Laura (reading Woolf’s masterpiece), and Clarissa (living Woolf’s masterpiece). Although the women live in different places and times, they struggle with similar issues and choices: art or obscurity, happiness or dissatisfaction, life or death. While I felt like I understood the creative quandaries of Virginia and Clarissa, perhaps because of my enrollment in the class and having read Mrs. Dalloway, I (like Pat) was frustrated with Laura Brown. Sure, she was unhappy. Sure, she felt trapped. Haven’t we all experienced the panicked pangs of displeasure? Do we all give up? No. Are we supposed to, according to Laura? While I do not agree with her decision and her later pseudo-redemption with her "I chose life" speech, I do understand her vital role in the plot. At least, for my own purposes. She is the example of the choice to live selfishly. While she chooses to live, she ruins those closest to her. I suppose the unanswered questions and the ambiguous functions which attach themselves to these characters is the very essence of the film.
Despite my frustration with Laura Brown, I was deeply interested in the broken relationship she had with her son, Richard, especially in light of current events. When I read that Nicholas Hughes, the son of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, had committed suicide last week, I instantly had an image of Richard Brown letting himself fall from his apartment window. The ensuing media-based scientific debates about a hereditary inclination to suicide made me think about the legacy that parents left their children: Laura’s to Richard and Leslie Stephen’s to his daughter Virginia. Laura’s abandonment, her figurative suicide, not only influences Richard’s life, but also his writing. He writes about her as if she killed herself – to him, she is dead. However, he does write about her, just as Woolf wrote about her father in To the Lighthouse. While we are never told whether or not Richard’s writing helped him come to terms with his mother’s desertion, his act of writing about his mother in an attempt to better understand her strikes a chord of resonance with Woolf’s writing that is both subtle and sincere.
Finally, I had huge issues with Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Woolf. According to The Academy, as Pat already mentioned, she must have done something right. However, I am discontented by her performance. While Kidman plays a manic writer very well, I can’t help but wonder if her depiction of Woolf is fair. Is that Virginia Woolf’s entire legacy? Having studied Woolf’s writing this past semester, I have come to know an immensely talented writer, who is as witty as she is staid. Kidman’s Woolf is a curmudgeon who saunters about the house seemingly thinking only of Mrs. Dalloway and her next opportunity to end it all. I was sorely disappointed. Where was the Woolf who wrote Freshwater? Where was the Woolf who dressed as an Abyssinian diplomat during the Dreadnought Hoax? The prosthetic nose and the highborn scowl donned by Kidman illustrate the common perception of the iconic Woolf – the feminist Brit writer who drowned herself. Kidman’s performance, while it shows glimmers of brilliance, such as in the scene with Leonard at the train station, is eclipsed by its homogeny of depression.