The stories of three women across time, and the men and people around them, in the film of The Hours, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Michael Cunningham, is humane, moving and triumphantly acted. It threads together around that Life in a Day masterpiece, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, to explore Woolf’s fiction and ‘madness’, the pain of the poet crossing the lines of sexuality and propriety, and a book’s link to lives across time. Perhaps the perception of our own ‘happiness’ is too often at the expense of others, but this is about the struggle for both fulfilment and freedom and its tragic human limits.
So it takes us from a straight-laced age of duty and social structure, where the ache for understanding, connection and expression are as great as in any other, certainly in the person of Woolf, to a suffocating fifties style American Stepford-Wife marriage, to present day New York and a ‘gay’ editor preparing a Dalloway style party for her male poet and former lover, dying of Aids. Part of its human genius is that sexuality is only incidentally relevant. This is not about sex, but the ache of people and the way they can find some kind of balance and fulfillment with each other. It is not only about the liberation of women, but the isolations of the human condition.
The echoing of connections and disconnections, of moments of beauty and sparkling perception, across shifting sexual and social structures, are subtle and convincing and use the beauty of film to show the light and the dark. No wonder Nicol Kidman won the oscar too. Though in real life Woolf finally drowned herself, a story that frames everything, in her artistic reaching she at first decides to write of Mrs Dalloway’s internal crisis, despite the social veneer of success, looking after everyone in life’s great party, and ‘kill’ her heroine, by having her kill herself. But that artistic intention changes, as Woolf struggles with life and meaning, and reflects a change in the actions of a boxed and despairing pregnant woman, twenty years later, also reading the book, who at first decides to do the same, but then to live. But her thread to the future is as the mother of the Aids isolated poet, who does kill himself brutally, in front of his ‘Mrs Dalloway’, echoing Woolf’s decision in her book that ‘the poet must die’. Why, asks her devoted husband, why does anyone have to suffer or die? The answer is not only that it happens, but effectively the crisis and purpose of art, to show everyone else the pain that can develop inside, so the preciousness of each day, and what they can only touch artistically about evanescent life. So even in destruction, real or fictional, the artist is the flawed ‘hero’ too, and Woolf cannot ultimately escape the fact she is the poet as well, writing of her own tragedy.
The links across time, shadowed by the subtle questions of human responsibility, are ultimately tragic, but there is no attempt to easily condemn anyone. The implication that the mother’s crisis and effective abandonment of her little boy led to the poet’s life crisis and isolation is militated against by the discovery she decided to live, after her aborted suicide attempt, and save the second baby inside her, but then had to leave in order to breathe and live herself. There is a realism and humanity in the fact she is not portrayed as haunted by guilt for doing it, against the expectations of some over moralistic plotting, and despite the consequences beyond herself. Perhaps it points to the purpose and often needed strength of some ‘selfishness’. Equally the poet’s need, feeling and passion, his burning love of life, does underline the intensity of the editor’s own moment of life happiness and connection with him, but is also too much to bear, just as his boyfriend finds in leaving him, his freedom for the first time. People, like Art, like Life, hurt. Or perhaps a better point is that the beauty and growth we can touch, at moments, we perceive as the beginning of ‘life happiness’, when it is only the thing itself, the best happiness we can touch or share, and must move back into life’s coming shadows, as we define ourselves and our needs and try to survive. At least these are people who may be flawed, may hurt each other, but who try to look after each other too. As for the pain or madness of the artist, as Woolf says, upbraiding her sister for not inviting her to the party – ‘even mad people like to be asked!’
If the conclusion is bleak, especially for the nuclear family, it is also profoundly real and echos Woolf’s cry to her husband that we can’t escape life, but must look it hard in the face. That perhaps we must ‘love life, but see it for what it is, and let it go too’. But if the story is also about the liberation of women, their special kind of strength too, it is about the crisis of men. Woolf’s husband, at once part Victorian and domineering, and devoted and tender, is in as much pain as his wife. The fifties husband consumes another human being in his cliché of what happiness is, underlined by his own Patriarchal selfishness, but he is really a little boy. The poet is caught right in the middle of men and women, and his own disease, in a new, ‘liberated’ age, and perhaps there lies his agony and the end of his road. The script is wonderful, brilliantly crafted artistically, as Woolf’s editor husband turns across time into the woman editor, trying to be herself and save the male poet too, and if there are conclusions Cunningham may have been reaching for that the film doesn’t express, we haven’t read the book. It certainly captures the risk and need of art and the acting is flawless across the board. It is just marvellously real.