Who's Still Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
See, the funny thing is that The Hours is a good film. I have to keep reminding myself of that. I caught a bit of the Golden Globe awards on TV last night, and as Scott Rudin was summoning his squad of actresses - Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman - on to the stage to celebrate the fact that The Hours had won the Best Drama award, I was thinking "Christ, I wonder just how much I'd hate that film if I ever was forced to watch it?" Only, I have seen it. And I didn't hate it. Even though I was sure I would.
Let's start with the bald man with the beard on stage at that awards ceremony. Although film criticism tends to stress the importance of directors, the industry thinks otherwise, so when awards are handed out for Best Film, it is the producers who go and fetch them. Now, Scott Rudin has produced a lot of movies: some great (Clueless, Royal Tenenbaums), a few unforgivable (Rules of Engagement), some underrated (Zoolander, Bringing Out the Dead) and some insanely overrated (The Truman Show). But Rudin's big thing in recent years has been Films of Books. Not populist bestsellers like The Firm, which he oversaw earlier in his career, but Contemporary Literature. Wonder Boys was his, as was Iris, and Angela's Ashes, and the Gus Van Sant/Annie Proulx gay cowboys project Brokeback Mountain which seems to have vanished from the production schedules. He's also meant to be setting up A Confederacy of Dunces, The Corrections and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Rudin does have a little competition from Lasse Hallstrom, who directed Cider House Rules, Chocolat and The Shipping News and Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, Cold Mountain) but Rudin is the dominant player right now. Now, the thing about Big Lit adaptations is that they come with an awful aura of Quality Cinema. Rudin, for instance, seems to like British theatre directors (Richard Eyre did Iris, Stephen Daldry did The Hours). You know, classy guys. And you want a classy cast, too. You want Judi Dench, Emily Watson, Kevin Spacey, Ralph Fiennes, Robert Downey Jr - people who really let the audience know that they seen some acting. This is filmmaking for people who would like to think that they would rather be watching a play, films for people who feel that Hollywood is just a little vulgar.
Which brings us to The Hours, based on Michael Cunningham's much-admired novel and boasting a terrifying cast: not just Kidman, Moore and Streep, but also Miranda Richardson, Allison Janney and Claire Danes. And I almost forget Toni Colette, but the casting director didn't (I have to assume that Cate Blanchett, Emily Watson and Samantha Morton must have been forcibly detained elsewhere - I'm sure extra parts could have been written for them had they been available). (There are a few men in the cast, and they all do stoically good jobs, but there's not a whole lot of oxygen left for them). It's enough Acting power to stun an elephant. Meryl Streep on her own would be bad enough. She haunted my early days as a member of the cinema-going public: in the early eighties there seemed to be an ever-present threat that all of sudden Streep would materialise on screen determined to demonstrate her command of some obscure accent or other. Always technically admirable, and always liable to completely capsize a film (conversely, no film has ever been scuppered by Sean Connery's blatant refusal to even try regional impersonations). But Streep seems to have been quiet for a while, and her place has been seized by Julianne Moore. It was only recently that I realised just how much Moore annoys me. Because the strange thing is that she has been a number of films I really like: Short Cuts, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and The Big Lebowski. I'm even looking forwards to Far From Heaven, in which - unlike those other films - she's not diluted by a sprawling cast. And every article about her will tell you she's the greatest living screen actress, at least unless they've got a Blanchett exclusive lined up for the week after. But there's something horribly creepy about her, even when she's meant to being sympathetic. So you've got Moore and Streep and Nicole Kidman, who can be all right but whose performance in Eyes Wide Shut was the most excruciating bit of acting in the whole history of movies until the moment when Penelope Cruz uttered her first words in English. And Kidman is wearing a fake nose, which for some reason liberates the inner over-actor (those great hams Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier were both fond of prosthetics). To play Virginia Woolf.
There's not really enough time here for me to go into just how much I hate the Bloomsbury group, and worst still, the cult of Bloomsbury. Anyway, did I mention that The Hours was directed by Stephen Daldry, whose only previous film was the obnoxious Billy Elliot (whole mining communities go to the wall but it's all good because some moronic little runt gets to go to London to be a ponce around in tutu). So we have a film about three self-pitying, suicidal middle-class women in different decades (30s, 50s, 90s) played by three self-regarding actresses burdened with a little too much technical prowess and too little sense of just how grating they have become, working a plot that's a tricksy series of variations on, and allusions to, Woolf's Mrs Dalloway. With a key relationship between a man and a woman who are clearly and clearly always have been in love with each other but spent their adult lives in same-sex relationships for reasons that may or may not be explained in Michael Cunningham's novel but are utterly neglected by the script (although possibly understood by Daldry, whose mother apparently said "But you're gay" when he announced - to the total shock of the theatrical world as well as his family - that he was getting married). And the kind of precise attention to period detail (Woolf/Kidman's heavy, baggy tights getting lots of close-ups) that normally suggests that the art dept are running riot through the film at the expense of storytelling (ie films where there are endless boring shoots of steam trains just to prove that look! we've spent a lot of money of a real steam train and you will be overwhelmed by nostalgia plus admiration for our work even though it kills the momentum stone dead). Leading to the inevitable conclusion that The Hours is a dreadful piece of self-satisfied bourgeois filmmaking that you must avoid.
Except that it's good.
I'm not quite sure why, because thinking back on it all I can summon up are images of horror: Kidman tilting her head to show that she's thinking (and so you can really appreciate that ugly plastic schnozz - what greater sacrifice could she make for her art?), Moore's pale and freckly skin signifying that she's just too damn sensitive to live. But. Ed Harris is good, and the multi-layered plot works nicely, and Streep is a whole lot less scary these days (and she's playing a well-office book editor in NYC, which requires no dialect work). And maybe Daldry can direct deftly when not making pernicious uplifting nonsense set in the cutely impoverished North of England. So, if Scott Rudin ends up collecting the Best Picture Oscar, and for some sick reason I'm watching it on TV, I promise to not chuck fruit at the box and rant about the triumph of yet more tasteful tripe (Shakespeare in Love, anyone?) voted for by the retirement-home dwelling members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to reassure themselves that their industry isn't all about the big, dumb explosions. Not that I would necessarily recommend The Hours to someone who isn't well-disposed to moody sapphists in the first place, but the funny thing is, it's a good film...
© 2003 Mark Morris