Thoreau was perhaps overstating matters when he observed that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Quiet desperation is, surely, a perennial part of the human condition. But so is quiet satisfaction, quiet enjoyment, quiet peace. Few of us can live perpetually in a state of anxiety and despair. We haven’t the stamina, for one thing; for another, life is good, even in very difficult circumstances.
There are, however, those who seem to embody Thoreau’s dictum more exactly than most. Sometimes this is due to especially desperate circumstances — war, poverty, persecution. Other times the circumstances are more personal — unhappy marriages, disspiriting employment, chronic debilitating illness. Some people seem tragically haunted by one personal crisis after another; others, hypochondriacs and drama queens, seem to exist in a perpetual state of crisis on some level of their own volition.
Still others face demons of a yet more personal and internal sort — addiction, self-destructive behavior, disordered appetites. And then there are those unhappy individuals who seem to carry suffering itself within their very psyche — those with clinical depression and other forms of mental illness.
The Hours, Stephen Daldry’s meticulously crafted, flawlessly acted adaptation of the novel by Michael Cunningham, is about a day in the lives of three women, in various times and places, who lead lives of quiet desperation all but unmitigated by satisfaction, enjoyment, or peace.
The first of these women is feminist author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman, startlingly transformed as much by her brittle performance as her prosthetic nose), writing Mrs. Dalloway in Sussex in the 1920s. The second is surburan housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore, Far From Heaven), living in 1950s LA, beginning to read Woolf’s novel. And the third is Clarissa (Meryl Streep), living in contemporary Manhattan with a lesbian partner (Allison Janey, Nurse Betty) but preeoccupied with caring for a dying male ex-lover named Richard (Ed Harris, A Beautiful Mind), who calls Clarissa “Mrs. Dalloway.”
Why do these women suffer so deeply?
The reasons aren’t identical for all three, but running themes include clinical depression and schizophrenia, controlling husbands and/or codependent relationships with men, frustrated lesbian inclinations or estrangement from a lesbian lover, and what one character describes as “the suffocating anaesthesia of the suburbs.” In a word, they are (as one of them puts it) “women living lives they have no wish to live.”
It’s hard not to be moved by the tragedy of mental illness. Woolf struggles with suicidal impulses and hears voices, a condition aggravated by excitement — but her artistic temperament is even less suited to quietness and boredom, and she desperately craves the stimulation of the city even if it may ultimately drive her to suicide. Laura Brown, even more profoundly afflicted, is virtually unable to function; she seems baffled by the simplest things, even the doorbell ringing.
Clarissa’s story is more complex and ambiguous. She isn’t afflicted by a controlling husband, frustrated lesbian inclinations, or suburban suffocation. She doesn’t seem to get any satisfaction from her relationship with her partner; but the more significant relationship for her character is that with her ex-lover Richard, a gay poet dying of AIDS.
In many ways, this relationship mirrors the husband-wife relationships in the other storylines, though at first the roles seem reversed: Here it’s the man who is ill, and the woman who seems overly solicitous and controlling. Just as Virginia and Laura try to endure the lives they don’t want for the sake of their husbands, Richard tells Clarissa, “Sometimes I think I’m staying alive just to satisfy you.” Clarissa’s answer seems to confirm the reversal: “That’s what people do — they stay alive for each other.”
On closer examination, though, it’s not so simple. Richard, we learn, has his own subtle ways of manipulating and controlling people around him; in fact, a number of people have finally fled from him for the sake of their freedom. Only Clarissa remains, trapped by her history with him, tortured by a sense of loss and obligation, unable to break free.
Thus, it seems that Richard and Clarissa are both, in different ways, oppressed and oppressing.
Despite the virtual absence of any mitigating happiness or satisfaction, The Hours seems to regard its heroines’ suffering as somehow indicative of the experience of women generally, perhaps even of mankind as a whole. Certainly it’s not just our three heroines who are unhappy; as Clarissa’s adult daughter Julia (Claire Danes) insightfully observes in a rare moment of frankness, “Mom — all your friends are unhappy.”
Clarissa mourns for a single, brief moment in her life years ago that, while it lasted, she had assumed was only “the beginning of happiness” but only later realized had been happiness. Julia’s response: “Mom, all you’re saying is… you were once young.”
As I reflect on this film, I find the following impressions and observations standing out to me:
1. In each of the film’s three storylines, oppression is ended only by some form of flight or abandonment — by relationships being severed, husbands and offspring abandoned, homes left, lives taken in suicide.
2. Each of the heterosexual relationships, from the marriages to Clarissa’s relationship with her ex-lover Richard, is eventually sundered by one of these forms of flight. The only relationship that endures is that of Clarissa and her lesbian lover.
3. On the other hand, relationships characterized by sacrificing for another, by caring for or being solicitous toward another, turn out to be unhealthy, oppressive, codependent. Just as those who take flight escape oppression, those who devote themselves to others perpetuate it.
4. These acts of flight and abandonment and suicide are depicted sympathetically, even vindicated. One woman explains her abandonment of home and family: “It would be wonderful to say that you regretted it — it would be easy. But what would it mean? What does regret mean when you have no choice? That was death. I chose life.” There is no pleasure in her words, but it seems clear that the film means to validate her decision.
5. The three heroines are profound and complex, and suffer in complicated and mysterious ways. Richard, the gay man, is also complex, or at least enigmatic. By contrast, the heterosexual men, Leonard and especially Dan, are not at all complex, and are hardly able to understand the mysteries of these women or their suffering.
6. Each of the three women finds almost her only glimmer of solace in a kiss on the lips with another woman. In the case of the two married women, the response of the woman kissed does not offer hope for future solace; only Clarissa finds potentially lasting solace with her lover. For some reason, the other two kisses are each witnessed by a child watching nearby in silence.
7. Two of the three heroines live in the suburbs, have mental illnesses, and find their suburban lives intolerably oppressive. The third woman lives in the city and is well-adjusted to her urban life. None of them finds urban life oppressive, or is well-adjusted to suburban life. None of them suffers from an irrational aversion to anything other than suburban life — deciduous trees, say, or Queen Anne architecture, or tourists. Presumably, then, suburb and city per se are part of the point, not just quirks of psychology that could have been attached to anything.
8. On two occasions the film finds reason for elaborately prepared platters of food to be dumped into the garbage. In a related, more heavy-handed bit of symbolism, a little boy whose mother may not be coming back carefully constructs a toy house out of Lincoln logs while idly playing with a toy car that looks exactly like the car his mother is driving — then abruptly picks up the Lincoln-log house and violently tosses the pieces into their container.
It’s hard not to be moved by the tragedy of mental illness. But The Hours isn’t simply a tragedy of mental illness. It’s a manifesto, and its cause is the victimhood of women, the repression of homosexuality, the oppression of family obligations over self-determination, of the life one does not wish over any other sort or even death itself, of patriarchy, even, apparently, of suburbia.
Yet it wraps its cause in such deep suffering that I find myself unable to muster anger or outrage. Instead, I am left with deep melancholy and sorrow, for the filmmakers, that they should wish to make such a film, and for the critical establishment that has largely embraced it.
The acclaim is not unwarranted, in a sense. Technically, I find The Hours to be one of the best executed films I have seen all year. In a year of cinematic good intentions defeated by flaws in execution, The Hours stands out from the crowd: there’s nothing wrong with the execution. It’s the intentions that are the problem.
2002, Paramount. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Toni Collette, Eileen Atkins, Allison Janey, Miranda Richardson, John C. Reilly, Stephen Dillane, Claire Danes.
US Conference of Catholic Bishops: O, Morally Offensive
Sympathetic depictions of same-sex sexuality, including same-sex kissing and a live-in lesbian relationship; sympathetic depictions of suicide; some profanity and an instance of obscenity.
Overall Recommendability: F (Unacceptable)
Artistic & Entertainment Value: 3 ½ stars (out of four) – Between Well Made and Superior
Moral and Spiritual Value: Poison
Appropriate Audience: No One
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Steven D. Greydanus does film criticism for a variety of media. He is the webmaster of the Decent Films Guide website.
(c) 2003 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.