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Twenty-first Century Woolf

Alan A. Stone

The Hours
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Produced by Scott Rudin

8Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is back on the bestseller list and the credit belongs to Scott Rudin’s splendid film, The Hours. Rudin achieved this remarkable success by mixing some of the best of British theater talent and three of Hollywood’s most celebrated actresses: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman. Every other ingredient was chosen with equal care: music by Philip Glass and an array of impressive actors, including Ed Harris, Stephen Dillane, and Miranda Richardson. The result is a film of stylistic originality and superb theatricality. The Hours is Chekhov for the twenty-first century—where every character opens a window into human possibility.

Rudin is a throwback to an earlier era when apprenticeship loomed larger than academia in professional training. He went to work at the age of fifteen with Kermit Bloomgarden, who produced Death of a Salesman, The Music Man, and Equus. From Broadway Rudin went on to Hollywood, where he has cast and produced both lowbrow winners (Sister Act, with Whoopi Goldberg) and highbrow art films (Iris, with Dame Judi Dench). Despite all his experience, I was skeptical when he purchased the film rights to Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. Yes it won the Pulitzer Prize, but it is a postmodern literary concoction, dense with ripples of meaning and allusions that only those who really know Mrs. Dalloway and something about the many lives of Virginia Woolf (whose extraordinary life has been repeatedly reinvented by biographers) can fully grasp.

Cunningham’s The Hours—the working title of Virginia Woolf’s novel—is a tapestry of three women’s lives. Woven partly out of Woolf’s own threads, the new design is a bleak but compelling interpretation of Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham takes the issues of suicide and sexuality out of Woolf’s closet and makes them central to his novel.

Mrs. Dalloway is about a day in the life of an upper-class English woman, but at another and deeper level it is a meditation on suicide. Septimus Smith, the shell-shocked victim of the Great War, is the suicidal character in the novel and the Jungian “animus”—the male counterpart of Clarissa Dalloway. Understood as Mrs. Dalloway’s desperate animus, Septimus dies so that Clarissa may live. Read again the last few pages of Mrs. Dalloway and you will see the power of this interpretation. You may even agree that Clarissa and Septimus are the two sides of Virginia Woolf herself whose lifelong struggle with manic-depressive disorder finally ended in suicide.

The original novel only hints of sexual possibility—the one marvelous kiss on the lips of Clarissa Dalloway from her wild teenage friend Sally is “a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed.” In Cunningham’s novel Clarissa is an out lesbian who lives with Sally; her erstwhile husband, Richard, is an eminent gay poet dying of AIDS. Like Septimus, he will throw himself out a window to his death.

*  *  *

For those who have read Woolf with care it is clear that Cunningham has an uncanny ability to “channel” her literary voice—her rhythm, cadence, prosody, vocabulary, and her omniscient narrator obsessed with trying to capture a rush of impressions.

Cunningham blurs the line between his impersonation and Woolf’s real voice by including her actual suicide note in his prologue: “I feel that I am going mad again . . . .” It is possible to be both profoundly moved and troubled by this uncanny enactment, but it sinks the hook. Cunningham goes on to use Woolf’s voice to tell his own version of the three women whose souls are connected by the imagined Clarissa Dalloway: Virginia Woolf, who is putting something of her own suicidal desperation into the novel as she writes it in 1923; Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife and mother trapped in a suburb of Los Angeles circa 1950, who is reading Mrs. Dalloway with a deep and unexpectedly refined sensibility; and finally the liberated modern version of Mrs. Dalloway, a New York book editor—Clarissa Vaughn—giving a party. Cunningham has understood Woolf’s talent for inhabiting her characters and her conception of what stream-of-consciousness can achieve: “I dig out beautiful caves behind my characters; I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humor, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect and each come to daylight at the present moment.” Woolf’s characters connect on a June day in London; Cunningham’s women on separate days across the twentieth century.

*  *  *

His mimicry of Woolf’s stylized prose, however, becomes tedious, and at best his virtuosity is a borrowing of her literary identity rather than a creation of his own. Fortunately, Scott Rudin had the wisdom to ask the British playwright David Hare to have a go at adapting the novel. Hare took a full year and produced a screenplay that brilliantly distills and transforms The Hours. In describing his version of Cunningham’s book, Hare came up with the phrase, “infidelity is the highest form of devotion.”

Hare was determined to avoid the conventional translations of literature to film. There were to be no fade-outs or voice-overs to cut and paste the narrative of the three lives together. By doing away with voice-overs, Hare eliminates Cunningham’s grating mimicry of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness. The actors have to speak all the lines that make up the narrative and Hare puts words in their mouth that are suitable to their characters. We know that the three women share the soul of Mrs. Dalloway but they have genuinely distinct identities. The challenge of making the film is in creating meaningful transitions that would connect the narratives of the three women without conventional fade-outs.

As the director to deal with this challenge Rudin chose Stephen Daldry, who had over a hundred plays to his credit in England but only one film. Daldry met the challenge by ingenious juxtapositions and by enlisting Glass’s music as a transitional device. The result is a film in which each scene borrows meaning and momentum from the scene that precedes it. Daldry also helped all of his actors to give what may be their greatest performances. Most of the attention has gone to the three celebrity actresses, but Stephen Dillane and Miranda Richardson are excellent as Leonard Woolf and Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell. Let me hasten to add that neither of them in any way resembles the real people. Chekovian yes, realistic no. It would be difficult to find in the maternal Vanessa any sign of Virginia’s artist and rebel sister. And it would be equally difficult to see in the fussbudget that Dillane plays the innovative Leonard Woolf who published the first translations of Freud in English. Daldry and Hare have allowed these anti-Victorians to be cabined in Victorian stereotypes. More importantly, Virginia is much smaller on the silver screen than she was in life. If there is a fault line in the film, here it is, and it is about verisimilitude and not aesthetics. Any real version of Virginia Woolf would have towered over the other two women in the film; as a result, she had to be cut down to size. To reveal in all its complexity the strange relationship between Virginia and Leonard Woolf would have overshadowed anything that followed. Virginia Woolf has been diminished to the size of Clarissa Vaughn and Laura Brown. The three actresses who play these three women look out at us from all the advertisements. Together they are like the three tenors—a measure of Rudin’s investment and his determination to make this art film a commercial success.

Meryl Streep is the modern Mrs. Dalloway, getting ready to give her party that will never take place. She has the hint of a sad smile and the purple-tinted glasses of the sophisticated New Yorker. This modern day Clarissa has a career, a not always faithful lesbian partner, Sally, and a daughter, Elizabeth, conceived by artificial insemination. Like the “real” Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa wonders whether she has everything or nothing.

Julianne Moore’s Laura Brown is a distillation of Dalloway spirits: she and her young son are a version of Septimus Smith and his wife Lucrezia. Moore’s appearance is otherworldly: she is and is not beautiful. Moore’s face can be like a porcelain doll’s, its features frozen and empty of expression, and then a moment after one expects it comes the slow-moving show of emotion. The devastating effect is of a mind otherwise engaged, a creature who does not belong in our conventional world.

Where Streep is glorious in her intensity, Moore is mysterious, unreachable, and baffling. Both actresses give superb, Oscar-worthy performances, but they are playing fictional roles. The more difficult task fell to Nicole Kidman, who was chosen surprisingly to play Virginia Woolf. Kidman’s idea was to put the dark feelings generated by the breakup of her marriage to Tom Cruise into the troubled character of Virginia Woolf.

Kidman is unrecognizable in the advertisements because she is wearing the prosthetic nose that has generated so much discussion. Woolfians claim that this prosthetic blob does no justice to the real Virginia Woolf, and they are quite right. Woolf’s nose was her dominant feature and even when the author looks sad and wistful, as she often does in photographs, her nose is imperiously British. Woolf was painted, sculpted, and photographed many times. The Cecil Beaton photograph published recently in the New York Times shows Woolf as a classic English beauty. In a Man Ray photograph taken years later her nose seems elephantine and she appears as much man as woman. Both pictures give the lie to the droopy prosthesis that makes Woolf what she never was: a dowdy eccentric. The nose is more than a distraction; it points to the fault line: is The Hours true to Virginia Woolf? By that test of verisimilitude The Hours fails.

Woolfians have created many different conceptions of Woolf as they try to reconcile all her traumas and her achievements. She was a victim of incestuous sexual abuse from her much older half-brother George Duckworth. She lost her mother when she was still a child. She had her first major mental illness when she was only thirteen. She was often suicidal. Her psychiatrists, who had little understanding of her disorder, prescribed rest and the extraction of some of her teeth. And there are other tortured chapters in her life. Despite all of this Virginia Woolf endured to become one of the world’s great writers and a great figure in the Bloomsbury Group. Nothing in Nicole Kidman’s performance suggests that greatness. Nor does the actress’s cramped eccentricity suggest the demonic mind of Woolf. About Septimus and Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf wrote that Clarissa “felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself.” Woolf goes on startlingly, “she felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. . . . He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.”

Like Cunningham’s novel the film begins with Woolf’s suicide, and the truth of what we are watching adds to its ghastly solemnity. Yet Woolf’s suicide note to Leonard ends with the astonishing sentence, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.” No biography of Virginia Woolf has satisfactorily explained this sentence. Some biographers blame Leonard for driving her to suicide, while others credit him for keeping her alive as long as he did. Virginia Woolf thought long and hard about suicide and suicide notes over her lifetime and I believe she composed many of them. She hated the thought that people would think her a coward. These last words to Leonard are a gift from the grave of a woman who was “part rare flower of humanity and part tangled ruin.” Kidman’s reading of the suicide note is undeniably moving—but there is nothing in her performance that conveys the qualities of the woman who wrote it.

*  *  *

Obviously, the Academy is not applying the test of verisimilitude: they nominated The Hours for an Oscar as best picture and awarded one to Kidman as best actress. It must be said that Kidman played the part she was given and does an extraordinary job of disguising her appearance on the screen, and it is not just the nose. Gone is the willowy beauty, and in her place is a thin, pinched, dowdy lady, an eccentric Victorian who wears ugly hats. Kidman has even found a new register in which to speak. And when she kisses her sister Vanessa passionately on the lips there is even a glimpse of the “match burning in the crocus.” All this is so unlikely coming from Kidman that perhaps it deserved the Oscar.

Philip Glass’s insistent, repetitive chords carry the mood of the film, to the dismay of some reviewers. But to my mind Glass’s music has never seemed more powerful, more comprehensible, more connected to an emotional reality. It has to bear a weight that might have been borne by cut-and-paste voiceovers or fade-outs. This then is not just background music or music for atmosphere; the plangent chords connect the three lives that are juxtaposed in the film.

Woolfians are not wrong in complaining that Hare and Daldry have cut the Woolfs down to a stereotyped Victorian size to fit them into their movie. Still, The Hours is a rare achievement, a film that is great theater. And it is meant as an homage not to Virginia Woolf but to Mrs. Dalloway. Other, perhaps greater, characters in literature—Raskolnikov, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Stephen Daedalus—must be searched out in the corridors of their time, but Clarissa comes forward to meet us in the twenty-first century, still asking Chekhov’s question: How shall we live our lives? <

Alan A. Stone is Toureff-Glueck Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School.

Originally published in the April/May 2003 issue of Boston Review




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