Mrs. Dalloway: British Connexion

I grew up in a Disney world where age and wisdom increase proportionally. So it is a little weird for me to watch more mature people act so fastidious and puerile. Therefore, you can imagine how difficult it was to try to analyze the characters and the motives for their actions in the 1997 movie Mrs. Dalloway. While much of the movie stays true to the novel by Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway and her circle of friends seem slightly senile with all the smiles, stares, and repetition of “look.”

Yet, as I warmed up to the characters and saw them in different frames of their lives, I began to sympathize with them. There seems to be such an abundance of misery and pain in this world that Mrs. Dalloway, Hugh, Peter, Richard, and Lady Bruton choose to focus on the superficial and less upsetting. Mrs. Dalloway veers around the awkward emotions creeping up on her since Peter has re-emerged into her life. She does not want to worry but knows that they have left things unresolved and unhappy. Will he be the same Peter who I once knew? Will he remember me? Us? Is life happy without me? These are questions that are perceptibly considered during the movie. The questions boil down to the significance of existence and how it shows in the lives of other people. Clarissa, nevertheless, shies away from such depth and introspective thoughts throughout the movie to utter “You won’t forget about my party! You’re coming to my party?” (except throw a British accent on it to pronounce pa-aw-ty).

Nonetheless, Septimus bears much of the depth in the movie, as well as in the novel for me. He is not afraid of introspection but suffers from it. He appears to be encumbered by every other character’s inability to deal with such deep thoughts, pains, and suffering. He endures enough suffering for all of them. When Mrs. Dalloway worries about her party or Peter about why Clarissa doesn’t like him or Lady Bruton about her new and brilliant cause or Hugh about stately appearance or Richard about…about…nothing really, Septimus is on the edge of such trivialities. He constantly hears a cacophony of sounds triggered by one “clamorous sound." He says "all the world is clamoring" and notices that he is finding it insufferably difficult to continue to be in such pervading anguish. He seems desensitized when he feels the most out of all of the characters. Hugh talks to Clarissa about his indisposed wife and Clarissa seems to feel very little when compared to Septimus’s reaction to Dr. Holmes as a “sneaky hunter.” (Dr. Holmes implies that Septimus is feeling lost or displaced mainly because “Men coming back from war…their work has been commandeered by women” and not because he saw a comrade, Evans, blown up in front of him.)
On the other hand, Septimus sets the tone of the movie and gives reason to why these characters are the way that they are. The movie opens with Italy 1918 and Septimus in the trench calling out to his comrade, Evans, before the comrade’s demise. Soft echoing music with still, detached notes resonates. This event is big. Perhaps, it is too big to live up to or to contemplate. It becomes easier to focus on the little things. Shift in the little things like choice of hat or dress or meaningless parties do not have as great or immediate an impact as actually confronting issues like death, the war, or suicide. Mrs. Dalloway’s patrons can experience momentary satisfaction in her parties and can reserve pensive remembrances of the night for later. Clarissa talks about the significance of a party to “give people one night in which everything feels really enchanted.” The aim of her having a party is to give a spark to life and to advocate appreciation for it. She tries to share this enchantment with her guests. Clarissa is connecting and uniting with people in a world with such solitary thoughts and trivial focus where the characters may fail to understand one another because they do not venture deep enough within themselves and each other to comprehend one another. Clarissa connects with her guests, with Septimus as a participant (not victim because she does not see it that way) of suicide and flower-shop onlooker, and with the woman she sees in the window from her balcony at the close of the movie. The difference between Septimus and Clarissa is that, among other things, Septimus turns away from the person he connects with and sees through the window across from Dr. Holmes’s office. He rejects personal connection while Clarissa seeks it and strives to maintain it.

All in all, Mrs. Dalloway was a bit long for me but accurately portrayed much of the novel, except for the car scene—a big scene to me. The hues used in the movie were beautiful neutrals and pastels that mirrored the level of passion and depth within the world of Mrs. Dalloway (tepid with superficialities). The costumes were nice pieces. The actors portrayed the characters well. Mrs. Dalloway is an interesting movie and an individual who likes to see the novel-to-movie transition should see it.

The Hours: Review

The Hours attempts to connect the stories of three women that are all connected by Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The movie is interesting in that it is very Woolf-ian and connects all three of the characters that are disconnected by time, much like Woolf connects the characters within Mrs. Dalloway without ever having them meet. Likewise, it also spans only one day in each of the characters’ lives (the exception being that Woolf is shown at the end of her life as well) with each having some sort of party event looming on the horizon.

All three actresses play the parts very well, though I’m surprised Nicole Kidman got an Academy Award for her performance. Although good, it was not anything amazing. More so, Julianne Moore is perhaps the most dynamic of the three, playing Laura Brown who probably is the most delineated from the plot of Mrs. Dalloway. Rather, she is seen reading the book throughout and how it inspires her. Although not directly from Mrs. Dalloway, the character seems to have elements from other Woolf novels: the relationship between her and her son seems to have a touch of Mrs. Ramsay from To the Lighthouse and her inability to make a cake mirrors Rhoda’s trouble in The Waves to comprehend numbers.

Were it not for the middle story, the third story would have hardly any meaning. All the events eerily parallel Mrs. Dalloway and even most of the characters retain the names from the novel. Clarissa is trying to throw a party. Richard and Sally are switched as Sally is now in the long-term relationship with Clarissa, but there are obvious clues that Richard and Clarissa had a history. There is a daughter who comes home and a Peter character. What makes the novel so great is the relationship of these stories to the Septimus storyline. Instead, it is Richard who falls out the window (could see that one coming from a mile away) and AIDS is the substitute for shell shock.

It’s sort of comic that the characters know of Woolf’s novel, as it is even mentioned throughout, but do not realize they are carrying out situations and fates that are within the novel. The movie, however, looks great and the cinematography is very much inspired by Woolf, as it pays attention to details within the days of the characters, much as Woolf’s novel does. Phillip Glass’s wonderful music is probably what keeps the stories together. If you have never read Woolf’s novel, the story will probably be much more fascinating, but having read them and knowing how much deeper Mrs. Dalloway is, the movie does not reach to the same level as the novel.

The Hours; A Review

The drama of The Hours is thus: Woolf is writing Mrs. Dalloway, Sarah Brown--preggers--is reading Mrs. D in 1950's U.S. suburbia, and Clarissa Vaughn is unknowingly living Mrs. D in 2001 New York. The film begins with Woolf standing in a river and ends with her drowning herself in a river. Each plot is a day in the life of a woman. Sarah Brown bakes a birthday cake for her husband and questions her life. Clarissa prepares for a party and painfully reminisces with old friends. Woolf has a visit with her sister and tries to escape her small town life. There are surprises and twists. And of course, 3 lesbian kisses, evenly distributed.

This is the umpteenth time I've seen The Hours. I honestly thought the first time I saw it would be the last. It seemed like Michael Cunningham, author of the novel The Hours, was just working out his mommy issues and his obsession with Mrs. D. But then I thought, "There is totally something up with Richard's robe." I watched it again. "OMG his robe matches"--SPOILER ALERT--"his childhood bed sheets!" The second time I watched it, I became obsessed. I noticed the blue and yellow color scheme, how Clarissa and Richard's dad point at Richard in just the same way, and how familiar that woman in the flower shop looked (Eileen Atkins who played Virginia Woolf in "A Room of One's Own" and wrote the screen play for "Mrs. Dalloway"). I love connections and The Hours is full of them. I also love Philip Glass, the composer for the film.

Reading Mrs. D only fed the obsession. I looked for connections with the book. Obviously, there were many. Furthermore, I felt that the pacing of the film and the weaving together the present with the past were wonderfully Woolfian. But what, then, does the film have to offer? It celebrates life. So does Mrs. D. It explores the ambiguity of sexuality. So does Mrs. D. It plays out the legacy of a masterpiece. So does--just read Mrs. D. The Hours, being based on a novel that was inspired by a novel, has a manifold challenge: it must contribut something that its predecessors do not. Perhaps, in that sense, the film fails.

The Hours has this going for it; it's a movie and a beautiful one. Mrs. D is not accessible to all people and The Hours provides a lovely treatment of the themes explored by Woolf. So if you can't read Mrs. D, watch The Hours. Woolf's characters are so elaborate and real that any reinterpretation of them will be interesting. Cunningham has a wonderful imagination and Stephen Daldry, director, knows how to make a film. My reaction comes from someone who's studied the film and Mrs. D many times. If you asked me years ago, in my youth, I'd say that the film was quite moving.

Ahead of Her Hour


Virginia Woolf recognized the importance of having a voice in one's own development, even if others challenge, disrespect or disagree with that voice, and apparently, whether or not that voice was at its most sane. "The Hours" is an applaudable performance, in that it successfully magnified that key interest of Virginia's. I take a departure from my peers' reviews when I say, that I feel the character of Laura Brown is a very true representation of a Woolfian character, and she really possesses a shared quality so often displayed in many of Woolf's novel characters: the need to self-assert because we can and therefore, we should.  


What means a good film doesn't mean having virtuous characters. Nicole Kidman's Woolf mirrored the real Virginia Woolf in that she speaks to a greater cause, human dignity. You need to assert yourself against those who try to stifle or belittle the value you see in the choices you wish to make for yourself. When Leonard first confronts Kidman's Woolf and dismisses her plea to return to London, she says, "They [the doctors] don't speak for my interests [...] this is my right, the right of every human being."  Leonard moved the press outside of London for the sake of Virginia's health, and now she wishes to relocate despite that gesture. This scene is the vindication of  "I will get the flowers myself" or "I will bake a cake," because here we finally have a purely verbal form of self-assertion. Perhaps the most controversial and paradoxical representation of self-assertion in the film is suicide: the ultimate consequence of living the life you wish for yourself, may mean for you, the ending of that life. 


Laura Brown continues this circular thought when she ponders, "What does it mean to regret when you have no choice?" At the end of the film, Brown brings us to the root of self-interest by examining it, proving that self-assertion often serves under the guise of selfishness, and that may be ugly and you may not like it, but it must be accepted for what it is because it is human. In essence, you may not have been able to live with the kind of choices I've made, but it is because of those choices I have been able to live with myself. Laura Brown choose not to live with false comforts, as Clarissa Vaughn has been doing. 


In response to the melodrama that Brown brings to the film. I think filming Laura Brown as melodramatic is very true to Woolf's own approach to her characters: the internal drama that exists in all of us and that she wrote so uncannily. Very often, Woolf will have her characters leave us off with those one-liners, only to return to that character and never address that suspenseful thought again. 



*While I was watching Kidman pace in the train station scene, there was something very familiar about her wardrobe, and I realized Burberry's SP09 line suggested some of that depression chic.


The Wolf in Woolf

I ask you to once again peer into the lives of George and Martha of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The film begins with a couple, the couple, exiting from a party. The conversation of the couple is barely audible but appears genial and familiar at a distance. As the couple approaches, the volume is increased and the conversation is heard. Their apparent light and familiar tones are perceptibly exhausted and partially biting. They enter their home and Martha peers around her and her husband’s cluttered home. She says “What a dump!” and invites her husband to find meaning in the exclamation. Well, not quite invite, Martha prods her husband to tell her “What’s that from?” He dismisses the question and we are left like Martha to find meaning in the “dump.” We, or maybe just me, search to find what is so important about the “dump” and seek to find the reflection of an answer in their home. Every inch of their house is covered with something. No surface is completely visible. Even the radiator has a plank or counter over it which serves as a place for their knick-knacks. Every table is crowded with glasses, dishes, laundry, books, and miscellaneous objects. There is baggage everywhere and not just material baggage but emotional baggage too. Martha has daddy issues which add to George’s insecurities as a man, as an academic, and as her husband. Her father is the president of the university and is an invisible yet powerfully present force. Martha uses him as a weapon against her husband and other men. She also uses her father as the model man against which she compares other men, often times the men fall short.

On the other hand, if we dismiss the exclamation “What a dump,” we are like George and choose not to humor Martha in her little antics. We progress to the bedroom where, as Roxie beautifully recaptures in her post, the couple is seen as loving and playful. We see the last glimpse of the loving married couple before they are put to bed and before the entrance of their guests, the new couple. We have heard foreboding utterances and a few snide remarks prior to this bed scene but the new characters that arise from the bed give new energy to their bitterness and viciousness to each other. The couple that we see throughout the majority of the film is this couple. They undertake great pains and care to ridicule each other. Martha and George engage in a night-long game with the new couple, Nick and Honey. Martha and George find new ways to best each other and use the new couple for their gains.

Nevertheless, as dawn looms and the couples have bested each other for the night, the couples retire to their corners to review the night’s games in better light. Martha and George are done with Nick and Honey and the new day is fast approaching so they must leave. Martha and George remain to find comfort in each other and their feats from their mean and spiteful games. They find solace in the sarcastic, yet welcomingly caustic, niche of a home that they have created. With the light of day, Martha and George become the loving couple who was put to bed before the night games commenced. They are more sympathetic to each other. George says “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” He tries to console Martha with the song she has been singing and enjoying all night. Her response is thought provoking. She says, “I am.” The audience wonders if the Virginia Woolf reference is an actual reference to the literary figure or to the boogeyman (wolf) or to their academic lifestyle.

Considering the reference to Virginia Woolf, one may wonder if the characters of Virginia Woolf are representative of Virginia, Leonard, Vanessa, and Clive(*skim Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. USA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1974). Martha could be a character who has similarities toVirginia Woolf. Both are gregarious, sociable, and intelligent women who are not really able to have children. Leonard Woolf was attentive and bowing to Virginia. We know George plays games with Martha and entertains the guests, though he is exhausted. Honey, Nick’s mousey wife, could be an auxiliary character like Vanessa in Virginia's life. Nick could be Clive who thinks that he is more intelligent than he really is and is clandestinely misogynistic in his attempts to profit in life. The relationship between George and Martha or Virginia and Leonard could be an example of an atypical marriage. They do love each other but instead of candy-sweet remarks to one another all the time and children they substitute caustic remarks tied with endearing nicknames and a phantom child.

Still, let us look at the last two possible references of the song before we decide if the literary figure trumps the boogeyman or academic explanation. As Kathleen Kane mentions in her post, the reference may be academically centered. Rather than big bad wolf, the song substitutes Virginia Woolf. The substitution has a similar rhyme, differing in the addition of one syllable. It also maintains the wolf with differently spelled “Woolf” that is apparent to the literarily aware, or academics; therefore, the change and joke hinges on wolf-Woolf which can refer to a menacing animal or to a prominent female literary figure. In this case, if Martha is afraid of Virginia Woolf she could be scared of this hinge, the scary and academic where illusions and reality are restlessly muddled or tested. In the history field the, the historians, like George, create stories of the past and of past historical figures. They take pieces of exhumed fact and couple them with assumptions of how things were. In the field of biology, the biologist creates a past and pieces together the present to the past in cladograms and phylogenies. In the lives of Martha (daughter of the president of the university) and George (a professor in the history department rather than the history department), illusion and truth have no definite boundaries:

Martha- Truth or illusion, George; you don't know the difference.
George- No,but we must carry on as though we did.
Martha- Amen.
The characters get lost in their games, their creations, and their academic lifestyles. They grope through critically acclaimed films, quotes from acclaimed plays, and get lost in their literature. They may even be like the big white rat with beady red eyes that George says is a fitting description for Martha’s father or a description fitting for Honey’s father. They may be smaller rats running the maze of life as Martha’s father or Honey’s father constructs it.

George- You take the trouble to construct a civilization…to build a society based on the principle of…principle…you endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man’s mind…you bring men to the saddest of all points…to the point where there is something to lose…then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes Dies Irae. And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.
Could this be a comment on society? Their marriage is not what one expects from a typical marriage. Although they are learned individuals, they are not models of sophistication or civility. From the opening scene, they appear to be civil and genteel but, like Nick who is chastised by Martha for dealing too much in appearances, we must not trust appearances. Things are not that clear cut. Perhaps the significance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is not that definite either.

Although Edward Albee tries to explain the significance of the title, his explanation seems incomplete:

having beer one night, and I saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” scrawled in soap, I suppose, on this mirror. When I started to write the play it cropped up in my mind again. And of course, who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf…who’s afraid of living life without false illusions. And it did strike me as being a rather typical university, intellectual joke.(Paris Review interview with Edward Albee http://www.theparisreview.com/media/4350_ALBEE.pdf).
I am left with no definite conclusion, except that the reference is for all of the aforementioned reasons. Despite this befuddlement, I think the film is fantastic. The actors employ an emotionally unstable environment that functions on dysfunction and tantalizingly portrayed raw emotion. The audience feels the chillingly warm embrace of anger, lowered expectations, bitterness, resentment, and discontentment as the characters open their home, secrets, and vulnerabilities to us. Every word is enacted with the utmost feeling, save when George tells Martha to show Honey the euphemism because ironically bathroom or lavatory is too dirty a word to utter. Plus, I've always enjoyed the late 50s to 60s saying "Come off it." Twilight Zone uses a form of it in The Afterhours when characters say "Climb off it, Marsha." It is similar to the line in Albee's play, "Come off it, Martha."
See Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf asap.

“The Hours”

“The Hours” focuses on three women who are secretly unhappy in their lives: Virginia Woolf the author, Clarissa a lesbian throwing a party for an ex-lover with AID’s , and Laura, a lonely housewife. All of these roles are played by great actresses including Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep. One of the underlying focuses of “The Hours” is suicide. We all know that Woolf committed suicide and that is depicted in the film. But all of the women experience or encounter suicide in some way throughout the film. The characters are also related to Woolf by the novel Mrs.Dalloway:
1923 was the year that Woolf wrote the book, Laura reads it so she won’t succumb to boredom and Richard (Clarissa’s ex-lover) jokingly calls her Mrs. Dalloway which is also ironic because Clarissa was Mrs. Dalloway’s first name. “The Hours” is a great movie that shows how important it is to be true to ourselves, that mental illness can be passed down and that love is blind.

  Nicole Kidman is made to look like Woolf with a prosthetic nose, mousy-brown hair and plain clothes. Kidman’s version of Woolf is a great and albeit true one. Woolf is intelligent yet somewhat cold and snobbish. Woolf seems to want to be left alone but when she her sister and her sister’s children come to visit she seems to enjoy the company. But it does get a little weird when Woolf kisses her sister. Woolf was a lesbian but maybe she was just trying to seek comfort and solace with someone. It was clear she wasn’t happy: she repeatedly told Richard she hated Richmond and was lonely. When Woolf commits suicide by filling her pockets with rocks and drowning herself it is a sad and short scene.
                     
Laura, played by Julianne Moore is a secretly sad and lonely housewife who reads “Mrs. Dalloway” so she wont succumb to boredom. Laura looks like any other housewife but she doesn’t feel like one. She’s pregnant with her second child and is always with her clingy son Richie. When her friend Kitty comes over to tell her that she is sick Laura kisses her. Here we see one of the reasons why Laura is unhappy. She is secretly gay and has to hide her feelings. Coming-out in the 1950’s was simply unexceptable back then. The ideal woman was supposed to stay home, cook and clean for her husband and raise her children. Richie also seems to view everything about his mother, so it seems to effect him. After the kiss Laura goes to a hotel to commit suicide by taking pills. But she later returns home and throws the birthday party for her son. It’s a good thing that she didn’t commit suicide but it’s sad that she has to go on living a lie. This is similar to what Woolf says in the film: “You cannot find peace by avoiding life.”
 
 Clarissa is a lesbian living in the modern day. She has a daughter that is of college-age played by Claire Danes who joins her when she is preparing Richard’s party.  Richard appears ravaged by AID’s: he is shockingly thin and depressed. Although both are gay, both Richard and Clarissa dated in college. Clarissa seems to still love Richard, and it is evident by her affection and kindness toward him. Also when Clarissa says, “That is what we do. That is what people do. They stay alive for each other,” we can see that she is thinking of what life would be like without Richard. But Richard later succumbs to his depression and kills himself. We later find out that he is Laura’s son. He believes that his illness was passed on to him. But what illness he is talking about? It could be that he thinks that he inherited being gay from his mother. Or his mental illness, as he is suicidal and his mother was too. Although she came back from the hotel Laura later left her family after giving birth to her second child. When she hears of her son’s death she thinks that maybe that was a horrible mistake.
 
I think that if she had seen it Woolf would’ve been proud of “The Hours”. It did not paint a false version of her and it discusses the message she wanted to live her life by. Which is being true to oneself. -- Baha Awadallah

Party Games, Upgraded

The 1966 film adaptation of Edward Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, begins with a long, pan-out camera shot during the initial credits. The scene is quiet and serene as a middle-aged couple walks home in the dark. The credits fade and the film blends genres to resemble a play as the couple flicks the light switch of their living room to represent the beginning of a scene. However, this aspect of a play is present within a movie, so the lens takes the viewer right into the scene. Martha's throaty voice yells, "What a dump!" and the viewer is thrust into a two hour long emotional tug-of-war.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton play Martha and George, a married couple who host a small get together that pushes everyone involved to the brink of a break down when paired with psychological games and endless rounds of drinks. Kathleen's blog provides an excellent and thorough synopsis of the film so I'll try to stay away from summary to present a commentary.

Filmed in black- and-white, director Mike Nichols uses a camera technique that gives the sense of an amateur home video or a mock documentary (think of the extreme close ups of Michael's face as he makes a desperate announcement in The Office). This blurring between Hollywood film and a home video mirrors the the blurring between truth and lies, as well as objective and subjective reality within the movie. Martha and George declare something only to contradict themselves a moment later. While I don't want to give away any spoilers, I must admit that I enjoyed realizing that nothing is what it seems in this film and discovering that the viewer is yet another player in Martha and George's game.

The movie left me with numerous questions since I found it surprisingly complex. Is Martha a miserable person while George simply enjoys being miserable, or are they both rotten, miserable people? Does this movie document the moment that Martha and George "snap" or is this just a typical night with its typical scenes that occur regardless of who is present? Can Martha or George triumph over one another when they view reality as a malleable thing, or as a game with an endless supply of "Make Your Own Rule" cards?

The film showcases excellent performances by its leading couple. Taylor thoroughly dedicated herself to the role; the wikipedia gods informed me that she gained 30 pounds to become Martha, who is described as "frumpy" and "thick-hipped" throughout the movie. Though Taylor would be more successful at looking frumpy if she took up the role now, her transformation is drastic when compared to how she looked in Cleopatra or even The Sandpiper, which Taylor and Burton starred in only a year prior to the release of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Both actors adapted gestures and mannerisms that enhance their characters; Taylor's yelling and wild eyes make Martha seem vulgar while Burton's slumped shoulders and side glances reflect George's sense of personal failure.

I can't imagine many actors pulling off the complex and intimate relationship of Martha and George besides a pair that has worked together in previous roles. The dynamic between Taylor and Burton's Martha and George is impressively realistic. For instance, Martha accusingly asks George why he didn't put any ice into her drink when the couple is laying on their bed during the first scene. After he mumbles that she always eats her ice, Martha rolls over George, reaches into his drink, and drops the retrieved ice cubes into her own glass with a hand now dripping with alcohol. This moment is executed so flawlessly that, paired with the intimate camera technique, the viewer feels that Martha and George have been together for years and, though their marriage is dysfunctional, they share a deep emotional bond. Of course, it might help that Taylor and Burton were actually married off-screen. Twice.

As for the reference to Virginia Woolf, I have to admit that I don't get it. "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" is an alteration of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Woolf." I see that the this movie makes a jab at academics who view themselves as intellectually superior though they might be more ruthless and primitive than the average person, but I doubt whether this joke actually contributes anything to the film. I found more connection between the characters' inability to name and know anything with T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," rather than finding a connection between the film and any of Woolf's works. Perhaps Woolf was regarded in a negative light during the '60s due to her association with stigmatized feminism. Perhaps this "joke" is simply in the same vein as describing something as "kafka-esque." Regardless, I found that the three times that this joke was forcibly brought up were the only moments of the film that I disliked.

Overall, I recommend this film with much enthusiasm but advise viewers not to distract themselves by attempting to find a connection between the movie and Virginia Woolf.

The Inheritance of Woolf (Good and Bad) in The Hours.

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.

The One Where I Harp on Nicole Kidman's Accent in The Hours---for HOURS

I was around thirteen years old when The Hours came out in theaters. It was conveniently rated PG-13, so there was nothing my mom could say when I begged her to take me to see it. I made a point of reading the book before I saw the movie and The Hours was one of the few films that I didn't have to say was better than the book. I loved them equally. I bought The Hours pretty soon after the DVD was released and when I lost my copy somewhere between Florida and New York, I promptly bought a digital version off of iTunes. The movie provided the background each time I opened Mrs. Dalloway and again when I wrote the paper. I feel like I know The Hours like the back of my hand, but every time I watch it, I notice something different. That doesn't mean that I don't have some major issues with the characters or the actors who played them.

Normally, I think that Nicole Kidman is an excellent actress. She somehow manages to make breathiness into a plausible character trait for every role she plays: Satine in Moulin Rouge--breathy because of consumption; Grace in The Others--breathy because she was dead; Ada in Cold Mountain--breathy because she's...Southern? But this doesn't really work when playing a real person. As a thirteen-year-old, I'm not sure I even knew who Virginia Woolf was and after seeing The Hours, I didn't know much more (She wrote. She killed herself. The end, right?). Once I actually started to study Woolf, however, and began to research her life, I discovered this, the last audio recording of Woolf in existence, on the BBC website. I was a more than a little surprised and disappointed to find that Kidman sounded nothing like Woolf. Sure, every actor doesn't have to sound like the person they're playing and, okay, maybe Kidman didn't have access to this recording (the site was last update in October of 2008), it is all about how believable they are as the character and we can't really use Woolf herself as a measuring-stick for Kidman's portrayal of Woolf and on and on. But this breathiness, that Kidman has brought to every role I've seen her in, distorts our perception of Woolf.

Go on and give that recording a listen. Woolf's voice alone is a pretty striking thing. To me, it sounds almost like every exagerrated, stereotypical impression of British snobbery that I've ever heard. That voice is the way we were encouraged to speak in my high school acting class, when first learning the British dialect. Woolf's voice isn't breathy at all, it's strong and clear and, in not giving the audience that impression, Kidman offers us a very one-sided portrayal of Woolf. By changing her voice, Kidman transforms Woolf from a strong woman (albeit one afflicted by mental illness) to one that is weak and vulnerable, like the dead bird Angelica wants to give a funeral for. For some people, The Hours may be the only glimpse of Woolf they ever get, and Kidman should've made it a good one--not turning Woolf into someone so melancholy and frail that one was almost glad to see her go.

There's also been a discussion about the character of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore). I don't find Laura admirable (like Justine), but I also don't find her irresponsible (like Pat). Or maybe I think that she's both of those things. Honestly, I didn't ever think much at all of Laura Brown until she became the subject of such heated discussion on this blog. I thought she was a little boring, only meant to serve as a somewhat-clever bridge between the writing of Mrs. Dalloway (1923) and the being of Mrs. Dalloway (the present-day, Meryl Streep segments). Upon closer inspection, though, it seems like Laura is a what-might-have-been for the character of Clarissa in Mrs. Dalloway. Clarissa "was a Radical" (Woolf, 150) in her youth, reading Shakespeare and Plato and having thoughtful discussions with Sally and Peter "about how they were to reform the world" (Woolf, 33). One gets a sense of who Clarissa might've been had she stuck with Sally or Peter rather than marrying Richard and settling into a life of domesticity, where choosing flowers to a party is more important than reading Shakespeare. Laura is reckless, sure, no good mother would leave two young boys and their father because that was "death"--but she certainly illustrates one of the larger themes of both The Hours and Mrs. Dalloway: how "dangerous" it is "to live even one day" (Woolf, 8). If Laura hadn't experienced the kiss with her neighbor, or left her son to go spend a few hours reading and possibly contemplating suicide, maybe she would've stayed with her family and just maybe, Richard wouldn't have killed himself years later. Similarly, if Virginia Woolf hadn't buried the dead bird, or had been able to have the meal she wanted, or any number of things, perhaps she wouldn't have drowned herself. Who knows? One day can be very, very dangerous and the women in The Hours experience the effects of that danger.

I really wish I had more to say about Meryl Streep in this film but, really, she can do no wrong. I agree with Pat that Clarissa was "the only character...who acts in someone else's interest." Clarissa also seems to be the most well-adjusted. Maybe, though, if The Hours were to have a sequel, she might be experiencing the after-effects of this day and would be a little more selfish because of it.

I think Philip Glass did a great job with the score, the repetitive nature of the music echoed the connectedness of the women's lives. But, listening to Glass's other recordings, I realized that he basically uses the same few notes over and over again...so he loses points for creativity.

Back to Nicole Kidman's voice: perhaps it was the nose.

The Hours: Deal With It

When I finally got around to watching Frost/Nixon a few weeks ago, I thought it was a well-paced, suspenseful film with solid performances by Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, and (even) Kevin Bacon.  I was, however, constantly distracted by Frank Langella's Nixon impersonation; I didn't see much of a resemblance, and his voice was overdone, with each word spoken from the jowls.  It bothered me the entire movie.  

Last night, I watched Stephen Daldry's film The Hours, and a similar problem arose for me.  Every time Nicole Kidman was on screen as Woolf, I couldn't help but wonder who was in charge of that prosthetic strapped to her nose.  Nearly all the dramatic wind was sucked out of Woolf's sails by that silly makeup job; I couldn't take anything she was saying completely seriously, and it didn't even make her look more like the writer.  That's just one man's opinion though.  She did manage to take home the Oscar for best actress.

The other technical issue I had with the film was the music, particularly during the Laura Brown story line.  I would find myself in a seemingly innocuous moment of a scene, when suddenly my heart would start to race, and I would have no idea why:
  
Laura: I'm going to make a cake.  That's what I'm going to do.  I'm going to make a cake for daddy's birthday. [music: a swelling, swirling crescendo of strings and piano].  

I was on edge the entire time she was on screen.  Now, I know what you're thinking: wellduh. that's the point; it's part of the suspense.  I maintain, however, that there was no suspense at all.  Nothing actually happens with the Laura character, except the metastasizing of her vague, selfish unhappiness.  When I watch a movie or read a piece of fiction, I appreciate actual drama, not melodrama.  In fact, nothing irks me more than melodrama; I find it disingenuous, and it undermines the value of a work for me.

This brings me to my main contention with this film (or perhaps even Michael Cunningham's book, which I have not read).  I disagree entirely with Justine's assessment of Laura.  Justine wrote, "I really admired her acknowledgment of her unhappiness and the urgency of having to do something about it; of having to think of herself before others."  I believe the opposite to be true.  Laura had an obligation to Richard and his sister, from which she fled.  What is this film saying about personal responsibility?  About the abuse of the American dream? -- start over whenever you feel like it?  What about the responsibility to accept the consequences of your choices?  (I never believed, for a moment, that she "had no choice.") 

Claire Danes, despite what many say about her acting abilities, actually plays a pivotal role in this film.  When Laura arrives at Clarissa's apartment in New York, Julia says, "So that's the monster."  Yet after Laura's vague, quasi apology for her disappearance, it is Julia who embraces Laura, as if to accept her apology, as if to reach an understanding of why she needed to escape dreaded unhappiness.  But I remained unconvinced; what on earth does "It was death.  I chose life." mean?  It seems to me that she had a comfortable life in LA to which she chose to be oblivious.  (I was upset that I couldn't stand Julianne Moore's character, when I love that actress.  Maude Lebowski, anyone?) 

I remember something Denis Leary said in one of his stand-up specials several years ago: "Nobody's happy.  Ok? Happiness comes in small doses, folks.  It's a cigarette, or a chocolate chip cookie, or a five-second orgasm. That's it.  Ok?"  Every time I watch a film with the central theme of "well-off person searches for happiness because they don't recognize their fortune at having food, a warm house, and comfort," I get angry and end up ranting like this.  

The saving grace I found in this film was Meryl Streep's Clarissa.  Because she devotes herself to Richard and to throwing his party, she is the only character in the film who acts in someone else's interest.  Though she breaks down for a moment in front of Louis, her reason is plausible; she is witnessing the physical and mental decay of her dear friend.  She is the only character who realizes that showing love for others is the road to any kind of happiness.  Streep saved me from hating this film, with her small glimmer of hope.
 

...even crazy people like to be asked.

I’m sure it was more than the multitude of groans elicited from my father and my grandmother that began my fascination with The Hours from the first time I caught in on television. We tuned in, on shaky ground, right after Virginia kissed Vanessa, and somehow barreled through the movie for a bit, watched something else, and then tuned in just in time to catch Clarissa kissing Sally. No lie. This may seem silly, but this was my first experience with this movie. I had no idea what was really going on, but it was a (relatively) mainstream film and I was caught up in the Philip Glass and the delicious scandalous rush of it all, highlighted by my father and my grandmother’s fierce reactions of disgust and channel-changing. I was hooked and there were so many things I wanted to know. And I couldn’t show it.

This must have been 2005 (and I must have had my license) because the next day, I drove over to FYE and managed to find a used copy of the DVD for six dollars. I watched it that afternoon while dad was at work; no interruptions and no disapproval.

You cannot find peace by avoiding life, Leonard.

On the contrary, this film was one that threw you into the lives of these three women and the people that mattered to them. It was so delicate and yet so ceaselessly courageous, and I have never identified so much with one film, before or since.

From Laura Brown’s story we have the sense of a woman out of sync with her time and place in more ways than one. I really admired her acknowledgement of her unhappiness and the urgency of having to do something about it; of having to think of herself before others. I love her explanation to Clarissa Vaughn:

It would be wonderful to say you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does it mean to regret when you have no choice? It's what you can bear. There it is. No one's going to forgive me. It was death. I chose life.

She teaches Richard that we cannot live for others, try as we may; Richard sees a similar pattern in Clarissa [“Just wait till I die. Then you'll have to think of yourself. How are you going to like that?”].

At the same time, Clarissa expresses emotions that I have certainly felt. [“When I'm with him I feel... Yes, I am living. And when I'm not with him... Yes, everything does seem sort of silly”]. The three impulsive kisses in this film speak to this urgency, this relevancy of the person’s presence in their lives. With Philip Glass’s incredible score to top it off, this movie is intoxicating and inspiring.