A Movie of Their Own
DaldryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s film follows the interrelated stories of a day in the lives of the three women: Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) on the day that she began writing Mrs.Dalloway in 1923, a Los Angeles housewife named Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), who is reading the novel in 1951, and Clarissa Vaughn, a book editor in Manhattan in the year 2001 (Meryl Streep).
The film opens with Virginia WoolfÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s suicide by drowning. Her body drifts away under the Ouse River, Phillip GlassÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s music begins to rise, and off we go into the inner lives of each of the main characters. Though we can never know what Woolf was like on the day she began Mrs. Dalloway, Nicole Kidman chooses to play her in one of her more melancholy moods. Except for the characteristic sensual rise of an eyebrow, Kidman is virtually unrecognizable in her a prosthetic nose, and gently pulled back, gray-streaked hair. With downcast eyes, shoulders rotated forward, and a somber demeanor, she captures WoolfÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s mental illnessÃ¢â‚¬”in a way. Her portrayal of Woolf as she experiences debilitating headaches, hears voices, and wrestles with moments of panic is believable. But as much as Woolf was known for her depression, she was also known for her ebullience, wit, flights of fancy, teasing, and brilliant conversationÃ¢â‚¬”which rarely appears in KidmanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s performance. She lacks WoolfÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s edge and brittleness. Indeed, at 41, when she began writing the novel that would revolutionize modern fiction, Woolf was suffering far less than she was in her late 20s and early 30s. It was not until the onset of WWII that she began to enter another deeply depressive episode, causing her to end her life. Furthermore, when KidmanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Woolf drowns herself, she looks porcelain and sweet, hardly like a 59-year-old woman trying to escape fits of madness. The scene doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t work, except as a metaphor for the river of the emotions that can pull a woman out of the “safe eddies of life.”
From the opening scene with Virginia Woolf, a woman known for her strong disdain for domesticity, we flash forward to Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), the housewife reading Mrs. Dalloway. For Laura Brown, the novel is both an escape and a spur to action. Outwardly, her life does not seem too bad. She has a husband who adores her (a WWII vet played by John C. Reilly), a doting son, and a comfortable, albeit unbearably sterile and manicured home. Moore has few lines of dialogue, but her haunting expressions convey a woman struggling between her sense of responsibility towards her family and her desire for a completely different life. LauraÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s home with shades drawn and eerie yellow lighting looks vast and stagnant. Standing in the living room, she looks like a foreigner in her own home; with each passing moment she is wilting. In one of the movieÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s more chilling scenes, Laura silently gazes at her 5-year-old son, unable to move. She knows that her husband, a simple and optimistic man, loves her. But he seems to misunderstand her completely, increasing her sense of aloneness.
Flash-forward another fifty years and we meet Clarissa Vaughn (the modern day Mrs. Dalloway) as she is getting ready to throw a party for her ex-lover and dear friend Richard, played by Ed Harris, whose performance never manages to ring true. Richard is dying of AIDS. When he accuses Clarissa of being someone who “is always giving parties to cover up the silence,” she knows he is right. She is painfully sensitive and self-aware, a woman who sees the layers of meaning in everything and finds both pain and beauty in every second of her day, no matter how subtle. Watching her unravel on screen can be frustrating; you almost want to jump into the screen and pinch her to wake up and appreciate her life. But Streep is an actress capable of capturing the most complex of psychological truths from the simplest of moments. Thanks to her, we realize that Clarissa is so distraught precisely because there is love and promise in her life: She sees the fragility of life in her friend; her sadness is almost bittersweet.
The theme of death and suicide weave through all three stories. When Woolf drowns, we know that her voice and her fiction will live on. Her own suicide is mirrored in the death of Richard, who, after looking at a picture of his mother, lets himself fall from a window while curled up in a fetal position. Indeed, in real life, Woolf tried to kill herself by flinging herself from a window, but survived because the fall was too close to the ground. When Laura Brown ponders her own suicide, we see water flood around her, encompassing her body, reminiscent of WoolfÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s own drowning. Laura has checked herself into a hotel room and I could not help but think of WoolfÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s feminist piece, “A Room of OneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Own.” In that essay she writes about how women need their own room, their own space, to express themselves creatively and to, essentially, be themselves. Laura Brown does not have a room of her own, real or metaphorical. She finally finds that space in a hotel room where, ironically, she is considering suicide.
All three leading women do a marvelous job portraying characters whose inner feelings drive the film. Although Kidman lacks the command and edge of Virginia Woolf, she still gives a deeply moving performance. But some of the finest performances come from the supporting cast. Stephen Dillane as Leonard Woolf is outstanding as a man who must live with the agony of loving someone who is mentally ill. At first he seems to serve as merely her warden, but as the film progresses we see that his behavior is not about wanting to control his wife, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s about love. We believe him when he says that he has arranged for them to live outside of London for her benefit. As he tries to fight back the tears, Leonard reveals the deep angst experienced by the partners of the mentally ill. Toni Collette gives a riveting performance as LauraÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s neighbor, another angst-ridden woman, but one who has built her life around disguising her difficulties. Indeed, the film is an often somber reminder of the impermanence and fragility of life.
Here lies the message of the film: The value and beauty of life does not have to occur in its largest moments; rather they can occur anywhere. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the essence of WoolfÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fiction. Both Virginia Woolf and The Hours remind us to open our eyes wider and notice the subtle hints of joy that surround everyday life.
Haven Iverson is a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.