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Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
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#46: The Hours
(USA/UK, 2002; dir. Stephen Daldry; cin. Seamus McGarvey; with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Stephen Dillane, Jack Rovello, Allison Janney, Jeff Daniels, Claire Danes, Eileen Atkins, Miranda Richardson, Linda Bassett, John C. Reilly, Toni Collette, Margo Martindale)
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The Hours, both Michael Cunningham's novel and Stephen Daldry's film, continue to frustrate and upset me, in ways that are at this point indistinguishable from fascination. Sometimes that fascination is purer, more awed. At other times, both the book and the movie emanate a powerful mediocrity, a distinct aroma of cliché, of unmet ambitions. I often furrow my brow at the relentless lyricism of Cunningham's prose, which, in this book as in others, strives rather arduously for showy, synesthetic images where more modest narration would happily suffice. He writes as though with each paragraph he hopes to secure our vote, some badge of our readerly devotion, even though the heady conceptions of his books sometimes trip over all the stylistic filigrees. And yet, Cunningham broaches subjects and themes that are difficult to articulate, or even to acknowledge, and he is capable of real astuteness in how he treats them: the ways in which death can feel impolite, just as caretaking can be officious and desperate; the worrying, thin line between liking someone enormously and loving them merely adequately, and how a shift from one to the other can be more painful than any dislike or hatred; the ways in which people look to art, especially books and music and movies, for telepathic prompts for their own life-choices.

The movie version of The Hours shares the arresting ambitions and the psychological acuity of the book, as well as its prosaic and vaguely elitist excesses. To my mind, in recent popular cinema, American Beauty is the movie's closest cousin, both of them built atop scripts that can seem courageously lucid and dismayingly glib within single scenes or transitions, both directed in a glossy, theatrical, actor-friendly style that serves and also sabotages the material by playing up the artifice. You can hold your ear up to American Beauty or The Hours and hear a worrying howl from deep within the upper bourgeoisie, demanding and deserving to be taken seriously, but you can also somehow hear the production teams slapping their own backs about the casts they've hooked, the certainty of prizes, the Big Issues they broach. However, while the moods and structures of American Beauty, for all of its technical audacity, feel smaller and more market-tested as the years go by, The Hours totally engrosses me. I keep sitting before it, open-minded, sometimes open-mouthed. It becomes clearer, for one thing, that the movie has darkened the book considerably. Disapproval of Richard Brown's esoteric, self-obsessed novel is more general. Vanessa Bell is more unhinged, almost repulsed, by the ravenous loneliness of her sister Virginia Woolf. Laura Brown already intends suicide as she drops her son with an indifferent neighbor. Clarissa Vaughan lets slip a major, unwitting insult to her daughter, and instead of nursing a fond, fumbling reminiscence with Louis Waters on her comfy living room couch, she erupts and nearly dissolves in her cold kitchen, where the light is the color of frost, the faucets detonate for no reason, and Louis looks on, agitated and annoyed, from practically a mile away across the countertop. This last scene is my favorite in the movie: its scary unraveling of Meryl Streep, usually so composed and sometimes to a fault, encapsulates the wholly credible and almost lymphatic unease beneath the film's mannered language, the roiling score, the sometimes precious match-cuts.

I suppose it's no mystery that such a disciple of modern film actresses as myself would get swept up in this movie. I have been known to listen to the Kidman-Moore-Streep commentary track on the DVD while I clean or cook. Still, The Hours collects so many disparate, exciting actors into such a range of parts that it's almost hard to get a bead on the performances: secondary players like Miranda Richardson and Eileen Atkins grow more interesting over time; my regard for all three star turns cycles up and down; and character approaches that click well in one scene, or against one particular co-star, feel subtly wrong in or against another. In some ways, the movie cuts more to the point of Cunningham's novel than his own prose really can: the whole piece activates such complex, elliptical relationships among notions of acting, essence, ritual, privilege, performance, gender, art, sex, and death that it somehow deepens the themes to see the bodies, scrutinize the faces, smell the money, feel the flatness of the screen. A major concern of The Hours is the ambivalence of love, the working out of conflicted emotions over time, even over generations. Fitting, then, that I keep wrestling with this book and this movie, frowning at their shortcuts and platitudes, hooking onto their sublime moments, assigning both texts in course after course, wondering where our attachments to art really come from, how fraught they can be with disapproval as well as wonder.

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