The Hours (2002)
Written by David Hare
Directed by Stephen Daldry
A single day in the life of a human being can shake the foundations of the earth like an earthquake. The Hours takes place at three points in time following three women, each on a day that alters the course of their lives. Suicide is an element in each of their days, but not all attempts are successful; however, the suicides ripple through their world, much like that earthquake mentioned above. And always the interminable hours, time continues to tick by so slowly, making them feel each moment they endure life.
The structure of The Hours is an ouroboros. Author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is writing her classic novel, Mrs. Dalloway. In the 1950s, housewife Laura (Julianne Moore) reads the book. In 2001, Clarissa (Meryl Streep) seems to unknowingly be going through the same actions and even saying the same things as Woolf’s title character.
As the three storyline progress, we see parallels between characters, all of them unsatisfied with life, particularly with their most intimate relationships. Another common thread is that the women are not heterosexual, with two characters held back from living their lives openly by the society around them. The third is living in a committed relationship with a woman but feeling a strong sense of ennui about the direction of her life.
The theme cutting through the entire film is that while we are freer in a legal sense to live our lives, the burdens of existence, the guilt of doing well while others suffer, and the spiral of mental illness never let up for many people. One of the things realized by characters during their illness is to have a moment of clarity to see through the veil of depression and make some heavy realizations about themselves and their loved ones. Woolf’s real-life suicide is dramatized in the opening of the film, with her voice-over narration reading the letter she left for her husband. Woolf’s word convey her guilt of burdening her husband with the ebbs and flows of her illness and her own personal exhaustion dealing with its inevitable return.
Laura’s suicidal ideation is tied to the oppressive nature of society at the time and implications that she is gay yet unable to live that way. When her husband (John C. Reilly) regales their son with the story of how the couple came to be, the audience will be able to parse that this was not a marriage borne out of love on both sides. He genuinely loves Laura, but she has always withdrawn from the world around her because deep down, she knows her sexuality is something she cannot live at the time.
Clarissa is dealing with a suicidal friend, the poet Richard, her longtime friend who is now dying of AIDs. He’s receiving a prestigious lifetime achievement award, and much like the other two women in the film is feeling that powerful dissatisfaction with being alive. Richard’s disease is eating away at his body and mind, and mental illness he’s carried all his life has been aggravated by his condition. Through him, Clarissa’s own dissatisfaction is highlighted and sends her into a tailspin to try and make sense of anything her life.
The Hours doesn’t claim to bring its characters to a satisfying conclusion. Clarissa, in particular, is left in a state of ambiguity, not knowing the next steps of where she goes after the devastating day we witness. Laura gets some closure, but we see how she lives seeing the life she once had breaking apart. Woolf finds herself in choosing to end her life; the tug of war she’s lived with emotional has a finality, yet through her art, she exists in a state where she no longer has to suffer, a pure mode of existence.