Director: Stephen Daldry
Writers: David Hare (screenplay), Michael Cunningham (novel)
Stars: Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore
“The quest to live an authentic life may not be exclusive to women. But The Hours captures a desperation felt deeply in the hearts of 20th century women who have struggled to keep their heads above water while feeling pulled under by idealistic cultural demands that they be confections of perfection.”
Virginia Woolf’s famous book, Mrs. Dalloway flayed open and laid bare the vapid life of a woman focusing solely on the idealized beauty of domesticity. It was not only Virginia’s envy of her sister who seemed to have it all – artist, children, husband and home – that led to the inflammatory vision of her now famous female protagonist who doted on the small things of everyday life. Storybook pictures of perfection were the envy and the pride of American man, woman and child after the Depression and two World Wars. They sought lives where clothes were always clean, the house neat and dinner separated on the plate – meat, potatoes and vegetable all in their places, not touching one another.
Virginia Woolf put her talented fingers to the job of revealing that sterilized images of home and hearth were also what society considered feminine. Her insight comforted women playing keeper of the fantasy who felt its emotional emptiness. The Hours, based on Michael Cunningham’s exquisite book, does what film does best. It brings alive the devastating tension of women trapped inside conventions that define her.
Absence of feeling was exactly the point. In The Hours, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), as the imaginary lady of her husband’s house, never cleavered steak for stew nor cried over an onion much less swabbed a toilet. She was separated from the preparations and the clean up, left to wander and wonder and wait The Hours in between events. Whether she did this in rounds of meaningless walking or in an all-absorbing madness flirting with suicide, house and town carried on around her without regard for her thoughts, needs or desires. It was the deadly emptiness of this idealized vision of femininity that Virginia Woolf pierced with the now famous phrase she created for her protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway. Foretelling a century in which women began to insist on a party of their own making, the book began “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
And what a party it would be. Women sought a party against convention. They still envisioned a pretty picture but one where a place of honor was set for the silent companion of despair lurking beneath the table. The sought after party would celebrate an awareness of a woman’s spirit left unlived, fledgling female talents not fulfilled and private feminine desires set aside. In The Hours, Virginia’s sister left before dinner got on the table, before the ice cream and ginger ever got served — before the sisters who knew but could not speak of their differences ever sat down together. The fateful truth that not all women fit neatly into an idealized version of femininity was duly noted between sisters who met, kissed and fled from the chasm they felt between them.
By mid-century, parties hosting the uninvited guest of a woman’s despair were happening. Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a fifties woman, became indelibly sketched in American memory by early TV shows (in reverence by “Leave It To Beaver” and irreverently by “I Love Lucy”). Seemingly in no need of a personal identity, she was the apple of her husband’s eye and the fascinating center of her children’s day. The first cake Mrs. Brown makes for her husband’s family birthday dinner is a flop, blatant but forbidden evidence of something only she knows — she has no feeling for being a wife or mother. She sleep walks in full view of her husband and son; even pregnant, no vitality stirs in her body.
And then, a neighborhood friend visits, spilling her fears to Laura of a uterine probe that she can’t risk telling her husband because it is likely to reveal that she cannot conceive. Both women stand polite within the circle of fear created by their failure to fit a vision of motherhood as the ultimate revered, redemptive divinity for a woman.
Just as Virginia in the early half of the century envied the compliance of her sister’s acquiescence to domesticity knowing it could never to be hers, Laura admires the silent resolve of her neighbor. She, like Virginia, knows it cannot be her solution. She already moves within her home as if in a glass coffin, looking beautiful but feeling dead inside. Now, death tugs at her skirt, a threat not fully hidden under the table of superficial conversation between friends. Laura listens to her neighbor, comforting her with an impulsive kiss that kills any chance of them being the confections of perfection they’re meant to be. In an act of unspeakable empathy mixed with desire, they become momentary lovers. Their emotional display erases the kind of separation that keeps meat from potatoes on a plate and they feel, each in their own way, mortified by a transgression they don’t understand. They are women loving women, sad beyond sad for feelings they cannot show without breaking the mask.
Laura knows what she must do. She dumps the failed cake in the garbage, baking another that will shield her husband from ever guessing her betrayal. Her neighbor’s visit has stirred up feelings of love that his idealized vision of her has not. Then she yields to her instincts, diving down to a destiny beyond her control. She lets her unconscious lead the way to exploration of desires not possible in the look-alike houses of a sunny California suburb where husbands buy the flowers for the party. Laura’s drowning in expectations, hosting a party she’s not creating. She wants to buy the flowers herself. For her own party, Laura had to walk away from the guaranteed benefits of housewife. Desperate to feel authentic, she was willing to take the risk. It was a courageous move. Laura Brown is as good a portrayal as any of the woman determined to dive beneath surface appearances, reinventing herself in her own image.
Laura’s quiet, vigilant, sensitive son watches her go. He sees her slip away while she is still there baking the cake, knowing more about her despair than he can articulate. That son, Richard (Ed Harris) grows up to be an acclaimed writer who captures the profundity of emotional loss in a woman’s adherence to pretty images. Presumably, Richard challenges society’s suffocating grip on gender in his ‘Pulitzer-equivalent’ Carruthers award-winning book. He fictionalizes his best friend, Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), creating a unflattering portrayal of her as a woman who seemingly puts others first but abandons them by not being fully herself. He resists attending the party Clarissa is making for him. In anger, he accuses her of using him to avoid the emptiness of her own life. “What will you do when I am gone?” He rips the blinds from the windows to let in the light and then, like Virginia and his mother before him, drops out of sight. As the male child of a woman who succumbed to a judgment that she wasn’t fit to be a guardian of children because she loved women, Richard insists Clarissa start celebrating herself. He may have hated his mother for disqualifying herself as a mother but he also hated the idealism of domesticity that ran her off.
Clarissa 2000 is openly lesbian, gave birth to a daughter without the need of a husband and succeeds, handily, in a difficult career as a major editor for a New York City magazine. But she’s separated neatly from the pleasure of her own accomplishments by an idealization of a life not lived as Richard’s wife. Settling for being his closest friend, she chooses to see herself lessened, falling under the shadow of his greatness — for better and for worse. A modern woman boxed in by domesticity may no longer spur a Virginia Woolf madness or a fifties disappearing act but she still feels sad, struggling with feelings of being trivial. Clarissa’s personal accomplishments are upstaged in her own mind by her admiration of Richard. It’s the longing for a life not lived that dampens her joy.
As Virginia Woolf deliberated whether it was her female protagonist or someone else in her book who must die, she asked a question that goes beyond whether domesticity kills creativity. Must the idealization of the exceptional die? Must the deeply ingrained cultural mythos of the artist who escapes into madness, poverty and exile to follow his or her bliss die to make room for a more pressing one? Must the fabled Richard die to make way for a fabled Clarissa?
Virginia Woolf’s book, Mrs. Dalloway, may have asked a question critical to creativity at the beginning of the century but Michael Cunningham’s book-to-film, The Hours, raises questions relevant to its end. Can creativity survive the hype? Will the idealization of appearances insist on a future where ordinary happiness is devalued for a flashing instant of fame? Perhaps it took a man to tell it like it is. Of course, it’s a woman’s story. A chick flick for men as well as women. Perhaps it’s the idealization of a perfection that disqualifies the happiness of small moments that must die?
Everyday domesticity has its poetry. In the final scene, Clarissa’s daughter opens a door to a woman who has come before her, offering her a cup of tea. She invites her to the only table she’s ever known — one set for women of all kinds. Her mother’s parties lacked exclusionary protocols about gender, false ideals of conventional proprieties and fabulous lies about femininity that cause death before dying.