Shiny Shelf


By J Clive Matthews on 22 February 2003

The emigre Czech existentialist novelist Milan Kundera is one of my favourite authors, and I think that explains why I thought ‘The Hours’ was so brilliantly achieved. Now by that I don’t mean that I’m a pretentious arse who announces that he reads a lot of “difficult” literature in an attempt to sound clever, nor that as the promotion for this movie has focussed on the presence of Virginia Woolf as a character it must be as full of literary pretensions as someone who starts a film review with the phrase, “the emigre Czech existentialist novelist Milan Kundera”. What I mean is that ‘The Hours’ is like someone had filmed an incredibly faithful adaptation of a Kundera novel I have yet to read.

Kundera’s books revolve around themes, his characters and their intimate but usually confused relationships all remaining subservient to the overarching Idea at the heart of the often fairly simplistic narrative. In ‘Life is Elsewhere’, the themes are idealism and innocence, in his latest, ‘Ignorance’, it is the nature of memory, and ‘The Farewell Party’ focussed on ideas of jealousy and faith within a darkly farcical setup. On top of this, Kundera often bases his novels around pre-existing works of art and artists – ‘Immortality’ has both Goethe and Hemmingway as characters, ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ is a prose fiction version of a Beethoven sonata, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ opens with a discussion of Nietzche, ‘Slowness’ revolves around the fairly obscure eighteenth century French novella ‘Point de Lendemain’ by Vivant Denon. Kundera’s characters are frequently separated by time or place, linked solely by their thematic purpose until Kundera as author/character (he often appears in his own books) somehow introduces them through some contrived, thematically significant event (be it a car crash, a late train, or the arrival of the police).

In ‘The Hours’, the themes are the nature of happiness and death, which are explored through the relationship of three women separated by time and place, but linked through their connection to Virginia Woolf’s novel ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. It is a perfect Kunderian conceit. The film opens with Woolf’s suicide in 1941, before spending the rest of the movie shifting between a confused Housewife in 1951 Los Angeles (the excellent Julianne Moore), an arty lesbian in early 2001 New York (a surprisingly good Meryl Streep), and back to Woolf (Nicole Kidman) as she struggles to write ‘Mrs Dalloway’ in Richmond upon Thames in 1923, all blended together through some expert cinematography and editing and supported by a beautiful score by Philip Glass. The ensemble cast is amazing, with John C. Reilley (who seems to be in everything at the moment), Clare Danes, Miranda Richardson, Toni Collette, Alison Janney, Jeff Daniels and Stephen Dillane acting as perfect support to the three female leads. A special mention must go to Ed Harris who, in the role of the drug and AIDS-raddled poet of the 2001 sequences, should surely win the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ award when the Oscars are announced in March.

‘The Hours’ is a masterpiece of thematic storytelling, centred upon an outstanding screenplay and unanimously superb performances from every single cast member. Don’t be put off by the idea that this is a “literary” film, or that on the surface it could sound like one of those ‘Forrest Gump’ style “Oscar winning by numbers” flicks (women struggling against the odds, mental illness, AIDS, clever dialogue, uplifting message etc.). It is exactly the sort of movie we keep being told that Hollywood doesn’t do anymore, but that it’s actually arguable that Hollywood never did do – an intelligent study of themes and characters attempting to cope with life.

I haven’t read ‘Mrs Dalloway’, nor have I read Michael Cunningham’s novel that ‘The Hours’ has been adapted from (by playwright David Hare who should be a shoe-in for the ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ Oscar). In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything of Woolf’s, and know very little about her complicated personal life or her history of mental illness. If anything, I imagine that this helps, as it enabled me to watch the dual themes unfold without constantly thinking back to the two novels the movie takes its thematic and narrative inspiration from. Thanks to my lack of knowledge the wonderfully downbeat, strangely uplifting ending was able to emerge as the perfect conclusion to this convoluted yet easy to understand analysis of disillusionment. I’ll be rooting for ‘The Hours’ to clean up on 23rd March.

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By J Clive Matthews

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