Stephen Daldry has been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director three times, and has directed a fourth film that was nominated for Best Picture. Here’s a quick challenge–before clicking on the “Read More” icon, see if you can name any of the others (besides The Hours).
Give up? Your answers are Billy Elliot (Best Director), The Reader (both), and 2011’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Best Picture). What does that list have in common besides Daldry? Well, three are based on novels. All four copped actors who appeared in them nominations as well. And I found each of them (okay, not Billy Elliot, really) intolerable.
Normally the 10 Years Later column is an opportunity to approach a film fresh, to reconsider, perhaps, whether my original estimation might have changed with time, experience, or developing taste. It didn’t help that prospect that I screened Extremely Loud a week before revisiting The Hours, but I thought hard about those four Academy Award nominations. Disagree with the majority once and that’s normal. Twice, that’s counter-cultural. Disagree four times and it’s worth asking yourself whether you are the problem rather than the spotlight on it.
The resolution to really try to be charitable didn’t last long. Daldry directs dramas the way Michael Bay directs action films–as a series of climaxes in search of a build up. There’s nothing wrong with a set piece to start the action, but the best films tend to settle in once they have your attention. This one…well, it sure felt like The Hours thought I was stupid, because it seemed afraid to have a single second where it wasn’t telling me something profound…for the third time. (Usually something profoundly painful about how the only thing more burdensome than dying is being alive.) The film starts with its coda–Virginia Woolf’s suicide letter–ends where it began and takes each moment in between to repeat rather than develop its theme that life is endured by a thread by those gentle, tortured souls that look down on the rest of us for not being as miserable as they are.
The storyline involving Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) seemed particularly one note. We have a breakfast with her obliviously cheerful husband and the establishment of how oppressive she finds the normal life of the 50s to be. And then? Well, as another character says of Mrs. Dalloway, we get a woman’s life in a single, representative day. Laura tries to bake a cake and fails–symbolic of her inability to conform to the gender stereotypes of her world. Laura hears of a neighbor going to the hospital and shares a lesbian kiss that goes nowhere–symbolic of her inability to even conceive of a life that asks what she wants, much less desires. Laura drops the kid off with a neighbor in order to kill herself at a local hotel, only to change her mind while reading Mrs. Dalloway. She lives, only to be demonized in literature by her son –symbolic of her impossible woman’s dilemma of having no other choice but suicide (total self abnegation) or ignominious self preservation.
I said only half tongue in cheek to a friend that the theme of The Hours was that everyone is miserable, women especially, except for the people who love miserable people. Unfortunately that love just makes them more miserable, until they kill themselves, which, in turn makes you miserable. If someone loves you you might eventually become miserable enough to kill yourself. If not, your booby prize is that you get to go through life depressed and unhappy.
Is that fair? I don’t know, probably not. I was struck, though, by how many characters talk about trying to remember the last time they were happy. When Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) has the conversation with her daughter (Claire Danes), the younger woman opines that this is normal. To remember when you were happy is to remember when you were young; to be unable to remember is to be expected as one grows old.
Does the world really think that way? Why then is Richard Brown’s (Ed Harris) own novel so full of his childhood pain? Fewer facets of modern life puzzle me more than the unchallenged assumption that youth is always happier than adulthood. It is as we age that we learn, and I certainly feel that my life is constantly getting better despite the accumulation of circumstances. Bad things that happen are a constant. Experiences that equip you to deal with them, however, tend to help you foster relationships that enrich your life. I can make comments about narrative structure and character development until the cows come home, but, really, the heart of my antipathy for The Hours is tonal. Life is a miserable, unhappy mess. It sucks to be alive. Is that not what the film is trying to tell me? Because if it’s not, then it failed pretty badly at conveying anything else.
As I slogged through the last thirty minutes of the film, I started trying to think about things that have changed in ten years and, specifically, ways I had changed in the last ten years. Ironically, one of the ones that popped into my head is that I’ve really come (late in life, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit) to enjoy and admire Virginia Woolf’s prose. To The Lighthouse was the only book I was assigned in college that I did not finish. But Three Guineas, is so full of humor, wit, intelligence, and sharpness, that I’m hard pressed to equate Woolf’s depression with the sort of apathetic dullness with which Nicole Kidman plays her. I get that when you are depressed it is hard to do anything, to talk, write, even to get out of bed. I’m just not sure that that struggle is always manifested in such an actorly way. The horror of depression is that it is too often invisible, that those hurting the most are often the ones that show it (or talk about it) the least. Perhaps the book on which the film was based has been well researched, but the depression in the film felt too thematic, too neat. Even when Woolf is walking into the river to drown herself, it feels more Romantic than terrifying. (By comparison, Justine’s depression in Melancholia struck me as truly frightening.)
Some of this I attribute to Nicole Kidman’s intelligence and strong acting persona. Kidman is a fine actress, probably even a great one, who has given many memorable performances. But quick–without looking at IMDB, think back over her career. Which are the memorable characters she has created? Grace in Dogville is an allegorical figure. I’m on record as saying I thought her work in Eyes Wide Shut was Oscar worthy, but, again, it was a performance, not a cooperative (with the writer) creation of a memorable character. Moulin Rouge is certainly a performance piece. Rabbit Hole? To Die For? I remember her being praised for her performances, but I remember nothing about the characters she played in these pieces. If her strength, then, lies in line delivery, in filling out what is broadly drawn, playing a character based on a real person may be a problem, one that reveals how wide is the gap between some of the characters she has played and the real people I know. Again, that’s not to knock her as an actress–I think she is exceptional–it is only meant to suggest that some roles may be more or less suited for the particular talents of certain actors.
And yet–well Kidman has been nominated for that gold statue three times, and it is for the portrayal of Woolf that she actually won, so, like The Hours, this review ends back where it started–with an acknowledgement that I find myself in a clear minority not just about the film but about the specific contributions of the artists towards it. Of course, Kate Winslet has been nominated for an Academy Award five or six times and her only win was for her role in a Stephen Daldry film. Perhaps I’ll be looking back one day on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as primarily being famous as the film for which the Academy finally honored Max von Sydow. Heck, that might even be enough to induce me to sit through the film again in another nine and a half years.