Virginia Woolf, Via Bob Guccione
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/19/03
Jess & I went to see the much-hyped film on Virginia Woolf, called The
Hours, after a 1998 Pulitzer Prize crowned novel by Michael Cunningham. Let
me admit I’ve never read VW, know little of her life, did not read the novel
by MC, but did like Edward Albee’s play- although VW’s only appearance is in
the title. But I was loath to venture to see yet another biopic about the dread
‘suffering artist’. I adamantly refused to accompany Jess a month or so ago
when the wretched Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s life was dramatized on the big
screen, & am dreading the upcoming release of the Sylvia Plath film- boy,
I’ll bet that will have us guessing whodunit? (But I’ll tolerate it because
Gwyneth Paltrow will be assuming the lead bitch’s- er, character’s- shoes.)
Of course, films like this routinely garner rave reviews for the star-studded cast’s performances, the lighting, the script, the score, the costumes, etc. This film has already garnered some Golden Globe nominations & Oscar buzz is flying, especially for Nicole Kidman’s turn as VW, adorned with prosthetic schnozzola.
But this film is not only a bad film, but the kind of film that pisses you off- for it’s obviously crafted to be a made-for-awards film. It attempts- & succeeds- to manipulate the not-too bright out there. It’s too long (114 minutes), its narrative is atrocious, the acting precious & forced, its views on homosexuality are utterly bizarre, & yet it’s been overwhelmingly well-received, just as other atrocious films like Philadelphia, Saving Private Ryan, & Schindler’s List were. I will summarize the film, then look at some other reviews, & put it all together.
The film is tripartite- it opens in 1941 with VW’s suicide. To no one’s surprise this is also where the film ends. We then get to the 3 main tales: VW’s life in 1923, the life of Laura Brown in 1951 Los Angeles, & the life of Clarissa Vaughan in 2001. For the 1st 5 minutes or so the 3 women’s lives are parallelly choreographed. This soon ends, & the suffering begins. Let’s deal with them, 1 by 1:
VW’s tale, basically consists of Nicole Kidman staring wistfully into the void, uttering banal sentiments that are meant to be deep, crying at the drop of the hat, & berating & abusing her servants. The occasion is her sister’s visit from London with her 3 children. VW sees a bird die, resolves to kill off 1 of her characters in her novel Mrs. Dalloway, gives a highly passionate, sexualized, & incestual, kiss to her sister Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson), berates her dipshit wimp of a husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane), who had the temerity to follow her shrinks’ advice to remove the addled writer from London, & install her in an English country home that would make Beatrix Potter envious, then force her hubby into guilt by stating that her country living will be the death of her. Of course, we know this is all BS since 18 years later, the dimwitted VW offs herself anyway. A real man would have told his psych wife to shut the fuck up, down her meds, & stop whining over a life (fame, money, love, adulation, solitude, contemplation, a devoted spouse) all in the U.K., save the Queen, would kill for. Still, VW is death-obsessed. Boy, a ‘genius’ artist with such an obsession- who’d’a thunk it?
The 1951 tale follows another dumb woman who is inspired by the book, Mrs. Dalloway, & ostensibly sees it as a guide to good living. This is the repressive post-War 50s & all the clichés are in place- the smart, precocious- yet emotionally fragile- son, Richard Brown, his doting but clueless dad Dan (the ubiquitous John C. Reilly), & the mother & housewife Laura (Julianne Moore) who is adored by both males, yet loathes them. She is pregnant, again, dealing with her incipient lesbianism (she plants an erotic kiss on female neighbor, Kitty- Toni Collette- who has cancer surgery that day), resents her husband’s impudence for having a birthday, thereby forcing her to make a cake- even though he does not ask for 1, & actually does things for her on his birthday. The climax of this tale is LB’s suicide attempt. She drops little Richard off at a neighbor’s house. This is depicted in the film as an act of neglect & great & needless suffering for the boy, who turns inward to play with Lincoln Logs- only after a slow motion run to the curb to scream for Mommy as she drives away. VW, in her revery, almost kills LB, but refrains, implying that this tale parallels the plot of Mrs. Dalloway- which I’ve not read. That tale ends with her husband’s asking her to come to bed. Of course, this is portrayed as the final straw for LB- she must escape this hell.
The 2001 tale dovetails with the 1951 tale. In this story we follow the character of Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep in the worst, most bathetic, performance I’ve ever witnessed from her). CV is a lesbian who pines for award-winning poet & AIDS victim Richard Brown- yes, little Richard from the 1951 tale. He is played by Ed Harris. He lives in a sewer of an artistic loft, looks emaciated, ready to die, & as a poet- of course- is self-centered, narcissistic, uncaring, etc. He & CV were lovers for 1 summer years earlier, he gave her the pet name of Mrs. Dalloway, then he left her for a man, got AIDS & became the wretch we see. Of course, CV is an emotional wreck, her partner Sally Lester (Allison Janney) cheats on her, she is planning a party for Richard’s winning a prestigious poetry prize (more echoes of VW’s novel), she has an emotional breakdown when Richard’s ex-lover Louis Waters (Jeff Daniels)- the man he left her for- comes early to the party, then witnesses a drugged-out Richard commit suicide by jumping out his window. Despite all the trappings of a feminist lesbian fantasy life- she’s a rich, powerful editrix at a publishing house, has a much younger lover, a daughter, Julia, from in vitro fertilization (the terminally winsome Claire Danes), & time aplenty to party & socialize- she’s really a wretch who desires the love of the man she lost- who naturally is gay.
CV’s resentment causes her to control the dependent Richard’s life until he chooses death as an escape, & also boils up in her rage at his ex-lover. This is highlighted when Richard’s mother- a now older Laura Brown (still Julianne Moore) comes to stay the night for the party. Her son is dead, as is her daughter- the child she was prego with in 1951. We also learn that Dan- her husband- died a few years later, of cancer. The night of Dan’s birthday party, when he asked her if she was coming to bed, apparently, was where she drew the line. She resolved to leave her family after her daughter was born. We find out, in a passing comment from the Danes character, that LB was referred to by Richard as ‘The Monster’. She moved to Toronto to become a librarian, & presumably let her lesbian passions roam free. The love of a devoted husband can truly be hell- or as LB states it- her life with her family was death; so she chose ‘life’, & refuses to apologize for it. Implicit in the film’s stance is that heterosexual love screws up the world: Dan’s love for Laura was stifling, although no evidence exists for that, as well as that of her whiny brat of a son- although Richard seems to be a bright, polite child. So Laura leaves to pursue true Sapphic love. This, in turn, implies that Richard hated his monstrous mom, & all women, plus had weak male reinforcement, since his dad died young. Therefore male homosexuality is a bad weak thing that is the outcome of refried Freudianism &- of course- heterosexual impingements, while female homosexuality is a strong positive thing, battling against the same. Then why is Clarissa such a fruitcake?- no pun!
It seems the film has no clue either, as we wind back to VW’s suicide. The film is larded with melodrama as this. From scene 1 of each tale we see tears, suffering, & pain from all 3 lead protagonists. But we have not been given any reason to care for the characters at this point, & when we see how selfish, unlikable, & downright pathetic all 3 are, we actually wish more pain to come upon them. This is artistic preening at the worst. The musical score is dirge-like & wholly inappropriate- well, maybe it is appropriate given how bad the rest of this ploddingly directed (by Stephen Daldry), & insipidly screenplayed (by David Hare) film is. But, what amazes me most is that in the reviews I’ve read of the film, almost no one mentions this Penthouse-like twisted fetish which praises lesbianism, & damns male gayness. The film is rated PG-13 but really there should be a P rating for films like this, & the recent Bowling For Columbine, for Propaganda.
Let me now comment on some of the poorly thought out reviews which have praised this piece of garbage. 1st off let me go with the old warhorse Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. He gave the film 3½ out of 4 stars. Here is a snip:
Hours," directed by Stephen Daldry and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning
novel by Michael Cunningham, doesn't try to force these three stories to
parallel one another. It's more like a meditation on separate episodes linked by
a certain sensibility….
How Ebert can say these
tales are not forced together is ridiculous- the 1st few minutes are
so painfully choreographed to parallel each other that when the tales do diverge
we soon regret that decision. Ebert screws up on several points in the film- he
thinks that lesbianism is hinted at in the film when it’s full throttle, &
he claims that Richard Brown is Clarissa’s ex-hubby, when the film clearly
states they had 1 summer fling together. He also deems suicide as the film’s
main point. Ebert is a good writer, but very hit & miss critic, prone to
swallowing Spielbergian swill with ease. He also never comments on the
over-wrought acting- crying is not drama, nor is a big nose immersion in a
But Ebert is not alone. The Washington Post’s Desson Howe also misses the boat. He also thinks Clarissa & Richard were married, & adds these gems:
The movie, based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is deeply moving, but not merely for three stories of agony, bravery and inspiration. With its deft intercutting of place and time, the film creates a powerful sense of mysticism and fate. As with such wildly disparate films as D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," we are invited to watch these stories from a godlike perch and appreciate the synchronicity. This is about more than individual lives. It's about collective experience.
Well, only if you think that most hetero women & males, of all stripes, ruminate on such.
There are also lesbian overtones in each story.
(Did the phrase "chick flick" cross your mind? Cast it out! This movie is, quite simply, fascinating storytelling. It's about compelling characters, period.)
Overtones? & Wagner wrote little ditties. Fascinating? Compelling? When words like this appear without any explanation as to why you just know this is a review designed to appear on an ad, as a blurb.
You don't just love the movie for its structure but for the haunted people in it, making each other miserable, but forcing each other to face who they are.
Actually none of the characters deal with reality- they all lie to
themselves, pity themselves, & deserve all the misery they have brought down
on their heads- except for Dan Brown, who dies of cancer, & whom the film
intends to be the only satirical character, yet turns out to be the only likable
1 in the film- when we find out his fate I knew it was coming, nonetheless felt
a twinge. Are we to feel for Richard’s becoming gay because his mom left him?
Are we to pity that Clarissa’s in a dead relationship (despite a late
passionate kiss with her partner in an attempt at rekindling)? Do we not want to
see the egomaniacal Virginia get bitch-slapped by her harried maids? & Laura
Brown- jeez, what a tough life she had!
The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan also fell for this movie's hype & obfuscation of narrative. At least he recognizes Richard & Clarissa as friends & ex-lovers, not ex-spouses. But look at how he effuses praise in a way all too familiar to folk familiar with bad poetry criticism:
It uses all the resources of cinema -- masterful writing, superb acting,
directorial intelligence, an enveloping score, top-of-the-line production
design, costumes, cinematography and editing -- to make a film whose cumulative
emotional power takes viewers by surprise, capturing us unawares in its ability
to move us as deeply as it does….
Ultimately, though not everyone in the piece does so, "The Hours" is about choosing life over death, about why we persist in holding on to our existence despite the pain it is sure to cause us. It's about those things we don't say because they don't fit into words, a film of lost feelings, strange unraveling moods and the importance of what lies beneath the surface….
"The Hours" is not afraid to admit how terrifyingly alone we can be, how deep the chasms between individuals are, how little we care to or are even able to let others into our emotional lives. Yet it shows not only how critical but also how fragile are the attachments we do form.
Loaded with clichés & words designed to convey depth without explanation. Here he punts on describing the dull repetition & achingly bad score:
As the film progresses, more
thematic elements, on the order of passionate kisses, are repeated as well. This
may sound gimmicky, but it is just the opposite, an exhilarating reveling in
film's power to seduce the mind into making the kinds of connections,
instantaneous as well as meaningful, even novels can't always manage….
With its own emphasis on repetition, Philip Glass' lush score enhances these connections, heightening the film's emotional quotient and giving the story added grandeur, melancholy and uneasiness.
He praises some of the film’s most inane & Machiavellian attempts
at ‘depth’- the soliloquies such as: VW’s ‘I believe I may have a first
sentence.’, ‘you do not find peace by avoiding life.’ & ‘To look
life in the face, always to look life in the face, and to know what it is, to
love it for what it is. At last to know it. To love it for what it is. And then
to put it away.’ He does, however, take some shots at the 1951 segments.
In part this is because the tone Daldry has chosen for the segment is less natural and more stylized than the others (witness John C. Riley's obsequious, artificial turn as husband Dan Brown). It's also because Mrs. Brown, alone of the three women, lacks someone she can have an honest conversation with and so, without the book's interior monologues to fall back on, her intentions and thought patterns are inevitably more opaque than those of her co-protagonists.
Actually Laura does converse with
the neighbor she secretly lusts for, but it is all dull & routine. Online
critic Darrin Keene’s review is similarly obtuse, praising the overbearing
score. Hint- a good or great film does not need a musical cue to tell us when we
should cry or connect with a character. Worse, he praises the script:
Much ado has been made about the Oscar-caliber cast that’s been
assembled for “The Hours." The film’s true star, however, is its
David Hare’s screenplay, adapted from Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is a marvel. Anyone who has read The Hours knows what a challenge it must’ve posed to Hare. The book/movie centers around three intertwining stories from different time frames.
For a film about embracing the living instead
of the dead, The Hours has precious little joie de vivre. Hard to believe
that Stephen Daldry, who made Billy Elliot, directed this heavy-handed
A high percentage of the film's pretension quotient can be ascribed to
the incessant drone of Philip Glass' score.
Bingo. But you
wonder what could have inspired this?:
In one of the film's two standout sequences, Virginia and Leonard are at
a train station, arguing about whether to return to London or remain in
self-imposed exile from the capital. The scene is so overwhelmingly acted you
forget about Kidman's Kabuki prosthetics and are awestruck by the emotional
intensity and eloquence.
easily the most phony scene in the film- bathetic, overacted melodrama at its
worst. She then casts more praise:
Clarissa is the only character who emotionally experiences the epiphany
intellectualized by Woolf. Streep, the most transparent of actresses, takes us
from Clarissa's self-involvement to self-awareness in the film's ultimate scene,
and she is extraordinary.
there is the remarkable Danes, as Clarissa's daughter Julia. She walks into this
stuffy environment and brings with her some much-needed oxygen.
terrible- she gives a clinic on how great actors can go bad. As for Danes-
she’s super-cute, but has about 5 lines in the film- this is an example of a
critic plugging a personal fave without any reason to back up the praise. Yet,
she at least ends with this apt summary:
Yet while I applaud his ambition, appreciate the difficulty of making a
nuanced film about the mentally ill, and am thrilled to see a movie about
women's lives, except for the two remarkable scenes mentioned, I was curiously
Sun’s Michael Sragow, however, starts his review like this:
The Hours is precious in the worst way. Like Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (itself a wispy thing), this over-refined adaptation centers on three women in crisis.
Fortunately he gets the Richard-Clarissa relationship right. As he does this aspect of the film:
The movie means to salute the
fragile memories of joy that can be wrested from chaotic modern life. Instead it
comes across as an advertisement for suicide, all the more so because
screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry go about their jobs like
skilled morticians, beautifully embalming their lead performers and arranging
them in exquisite poses meant to convey repressed emotion….
Kidman's Woolf and Moore's Laura Brown skulk through the film with impeccable impersonations of gnawing dissatisfaction. But the script does nothing to indicate why they feel so unfulfilled and so unhappy. They simply respond to vibrations beyond the understanding of their spouses….
He also attacks the Feminazi idealism that skulks just below the film’s surface, transparent to all but the Feminazi mindset:
This movie is so pleased with its
own tenderness that it may bring out the brute in an audience. When Virginia
lectures Leonard on how she knows best about her mental illness (a thought her
suicide places into question), or Laura looks at Dan's bed as if it's a prison
cot, some of us may feel like shaking them.
The Hours goes so far into heroine-worship that it undercuts its own logic. When we hear Virginia declare her love for Leonard in her suicide note, are we supposed to take her seriously? There's no evidence of affectionate attachment in the movie…..
posits the film’s theme as lesbianism, yet Clarissa’s schizoid type (we know
she’s acting out against her loss of Richard- why else would she tolerate her
unfaithful lover? An early scene has Sally skulking in just before dawn, yet
Clarissa is feigning sleep & knows where she’s been), Laura’s selfish
type, & Virginia’s out of this world type, do little to actually endorse
lesbianism as a positive lifestyle, no matter how much the film tries. Still MS
understands why the film fails. As does Time magazine’s Richard
Schickel. In the shortest of all the reviews he nails the film on 3 scores. The
Watching The Hours, one finds oneself focusing excessively on the unfortunate prosthetic nose Kidman affects in order to look more like the novelist. And wondering why the screenwriter, David Hare, and the director, Stephen Daldry, turn Woolf, a woman of incisive mind, into a hapless ditherer.
The tenor of the film’s overt politicking:
But this movie is in love with female victimization. Moore's Laura is trapped in the suburban flatlands of the '50s, while Streep's Clarissa is moored in a hopeless love for Laura's homosexual son (Ed Harris, in a truly ugly performance), an AIDS sufferer whose relentless anger is directly traceable to Mom's long-ago desertion of him.
And the terrible musical score:
Somehow, despite the complexity of the film's structure, this all seems too simple-minded. Or should we perhaps say agenda driven? The same criticisms might apply to the fact that both these fictional characters (and, it is hinted, Woolf herself) find what consolation they can in a rather dispassionate lesbianism. This ultimately proves insufficient to lend meaning to their lives or profundity to a grim and uninvolving film, for which Philip Glass unwittingly provides the perfect score — tuneless, oppressive, droning, painfully self-important.
For me, I do
not know which is more frustrating- that such a narrow-minded, & affected
film should be foisted upon an audience in the 1st place, or that it
should be so wildly over-praised & (soon to be) feted. Makeup does not make
up for lack of acting (teariness is not emotion, nor acting), blatant politicking does not make up for poor politicking
(& faux Liberality), &- if you are going to tackle a subject as broad
& complex as homosexuality (or just human sexuality)- it is best to leave
the stereotypes of the past behind, not trundle them about like an adored
keepsake. The Hours is a bad, dull, poorly-written & poorly acted
film that unwittingly plays right in to the hands of the homophobic crowds’
worst stereotypes. That said, I did find a few scenes poetic enough to inspire
some sonnets, & I’m sure Bob Guccione would give a hardy thumbs up for it,
or any film, that contains 3 passionate lesbian smooches. Still, wait for the
used DVD to be marked down at Blockbuster, because for the same price as
your average movie ticket, at least you’ll probably get some laughable
justifications for the film’s inanities on the commentaries, as well as some
sort of documentary about the real VW & Mrs. Dalloway.
A last thought- if this is the best that can be done for VW, I shudder to think at what horrors await Gwyneth Paltrow- & I don’t mean old Teddy!
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