The ripples of influence wash forward in time. From the ravaged, brilliant mind of Virginia Woolf in 1923, to the printed page in 1925, to the young, timid, unsteady hands of a California housewife in the 1950s, to the thoroughly modern, hardened eyes of a New York City businesswoman. Three women whose lives are mysteriously linked by the printed page, but also by shared thoughts and passions. Three stories bound tightly together—eventually—on the screen, as inspired by Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel, The Hours, which was in turn inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
The film opens with Virginia Woolf’s 1941 suicide. She places stones in her pockets and wades calmly into the river, letting the rushing water engulf her fragile body and battered soul. Eighteen years earlier, she is already struggling with her sanity. She hears voices. She succumbs to “moods.” And she writes furiously. At the moment, she’s writing Mrs. Dalloway. Her husband, Leonard, has removed her from the oppressiveness of city life in London and taken her to Richmond, a quiet suburb. He believes the solitude will save his wife’s life. She despises it, and sinks deeper into the world she’s created in her head: Mrs. Dalloway’s world.
Sheltered under the towering palms of post-WWII Los Angeles, Laura Brown has also submerged herself into Mrs. Dalloway’s world. She turns the pages of the book eagerly, breathlessly. It’s the only thing about her life that’s exciting, she feels. She’s the wife of a proud and adoring husband. She’s the mother of a gentle young boy. She’s four months pregnant. And she’s depressed to the point of collapse. Even baking a simple cake for her husband’s birthday is a monumental task. So she slowly surrenders to the words of Virginia Woolf.
A half-century later, across America, Clarissa Vaughan doesn’t so much read about Mrs. Dalloway as live her. Dalloway’s words pour from her mouth as she becomes something of a reincarnation of Woolf’s fantasy. For ten years she’s lived with her lesbian lover, Sally. But it’s quickly apparent that her true love is a man named Richard. She and Richard, who is dying of AIDS after a lifetime of homosexual relationships, had a summer fling in their youth. Then they parted ways—and chose alternative lifestyles. Now, Clarissa nurses him and cares for him as his demise draws ever near.
positive elements: The Hours’ positive themes are wrapped around choices and the things that influence them. They aren’t blatant, and in some cases moviegoers will have to brush aside the filmmakers’ intent to find truth, but they’re powerful when found. “The thing I loved about Virginia, the piece of her that stays with me, is her struggle. The idea that you don’t run away from these things or pretend they don’t exist. You accept it and exist within it,” Nicole Kidman said, pondering the untimely death of her character. “I love that Virginia’s suicide letter to Leonard is not about blame. It was her choice, and her right to make that choice.” It’s odd that neither Kidman nor the filmmakers view Virginia’s suicide as “running away.” Yes, Virginia Woolf had the right to make her own choices. We all do. But were they the right choices? By committing itself to the idea that there are no right or wrong choices, just choices, The Hours inadvertently illuminates what God says is the ultimate end for those who make the wrong ones: death. Suicide is, of course, always an option, but it is never right.
In regard to the things that influence our choices, Virginia Woolf’s novel is offered as an icon. The power contained within its pages drives a woman to the very edge of oblivion, then draws her back when Virginia suddenly decides to change a major plot point mid-stream. It serves as a poignant parallel to modern entertainment. Just as books can inspire and mold, so can music, movies, video games and television contribute to the moral and mental state of viewers and listeners.
spiritual content: Death is thought of as an end, not a beginning. Richard and Laura perceive it as an escape from their current circumstances. Virginia thinks of it as a peaceful, intoxicating nothingness. “What happens when we die?” Virginia’s young niece asks her. “We return to the place that we came from,” Virginia replies. Perplexed, the niece says, “I don’t remember the place that I came from.” Virginia somberly agrees, “Neither do I.”
sexual content: By film’s end, all three women have participated in passionate same-sex kisses. Clarissa kisses her lover, Sally (they’re also shown sleeping in the same bed). Laura kisses her neighbor (only in Hollywood can a 1950s housewife suddenly lock lips with an unsuspecting neighbor and have her passions unhesitatingly returned). Virginia kisses her sister (at first the two share a sisterly hug and peck, but then Virginia turns the contact into something more sexual). In Laura and Virginia’s cases, small children watch their mothers engage in these perverse encounters.
violent content: Three suicides. One is a drowning. Another is a long fall from a high-rise apartment window. The third, while not carried out, is at first shown as if it is successful. It involves pills, but is symbolically depicted as a drowning similar to Virginia’s. None of the scenes are gory or explicit, but all are intensely drawn.
crude or profane language: An f-word, an s-word and two or three milder profanities. Jesus’ name is abused four times; God’s name double that.
drug and alcohol content: No drinking, but there is talk about downing Martinis at a country club. Virginia smokes hand-rolled cigarettes while she writes. Her husband, Leonard, smokes a pipe. Laura’s husband smokes a cigarette. Richard quips that since he began taking Xanax and Ritalin together, he has a whole new outlook on life. Laura considers overdosing on prescription medication.
conclusion: The Hours is a brilliantly austere, emotionally nuanced masterpiece riddled with suicidal musings and homosexual propaganda. Two roles stand out. From behind her now-famous prosthetic nose, Nicole Kidman brings a calculated subtlety and convincing vagueness to Virginia’s depression. Julianne Moore loses herself behind the sad eyes of an overwhelmed housewife. The interweaving of Virginia, Laura and Clarissa’s lives is intricate and fascinating. At first you feel like you need a scorecard to keep track of everyone, but slowly you begin to notice that clues to their continuity are being doled out with dialogue, visual motifs and even in the characters’ costumes. When Laura’s shoe falls to the floor as she contemplates taking the pills, you remember that rushing water scooped one of Virginia’s shoes from her limp foot as she succumbed to the cold river’s grasp. As Clarissa morosely scrapes uneaten party food into a trash can, you see in your mind images of Laura angrily dumping her failed mess of a birthday cake. The Hours is obsessed with ambiguity, conundrum, paradox and incongruity. It’s a literary buff’s dream that has leapt from the printed page to the big screen. It digs for answers to some of life’s most perplexing dilemmas, and then turns the dream into something of a nightmare when it comes up empty. Laura confesses that she’s trapped between her family (a circumstance that makes her want to kill herself) and her freedom (a choice that means deserting everyone who loves her). Virginia tells her husband that she longs “to look life in the face, and know it for what it is.” For her, it is death.
What author Michael Cunningham and director Stephen Daldry have done is take Virginia Woolf’s well-known feminist leanings and her self-destructive moods and elevate them to a more vivid and culturally accessible level. (Thankfully, the film isn’t being marketed to teens, most of whom won’t be drawn to the film’s ponderous subject matter and middle-aged broodings anyway.) Decades ago, when he first read Mrs. Dalloway, Cunningham instantly recognized “the beauty and the density and the music of the language.” He remembers thinking, “Woolf was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix was doing with a guitar.” Stephen Daldry pays the compliment forward by bringing Cunningham’s meditations to theaters. The result can serve as a creative launching pad for complex ruminations about life, death, depression, mental illness, sexuality and how our choices create our destinies. But woe to the unsuspecting soul who decides to spend a couple of hours with The Hours and doesn’t painstakingly hold it up to the filter of God’s word and His truth. Intense images of suicide and same-sex passion can stir in us emotions that will drive us away from the Lord, rather than serving as reminders—as they should—of where our paths ought not to lead. Left unscrutinized, The Hours communicates that suicide may be justifiable (even beneficial), and that homosexual attractions are natural, pursuable instincts. Adults had better have their Christian worldviews healthily intact before wading into Virginia’s morose river. Most teens will be better off not even dabbling their toes in the water.