This is a rather dark and moody film that reminds me of the work of Ingmar Bergman and great Swedish filmmaker. The Hours is complex, slow moving, sometimes hard to follow because it is telling three interwoven stories set in three different eras. But, it is a brilliant film, very well acted, and worth the effort of watching and learning from it.
The three stories each have a female lead. The oldest story is about the famous author Virginia Woolf and is set in England and stars Nicole Kidman. Then we have Julianne Moore starring as a pregnant mother living in Los Angeles in the late 1940s with her son, who is about five years old, and her loving husband. The third story is set in New York City in now-time and stars Meryl Streep. We are constantly moving back and forth in time as we watch the three stories unfold. One of the important purposes of unfolding and structuring the stories in this manner is that you see that the issues that the three women face are in some ways the same over time and in other ways very different.
All three women are clinically depressed. All three women are to some extent lesbians. Woolf (Kidman) sees no choice but to commit suicide. Moore considers suicide and almost goes down that road but sees that she does have another option, which is to abandon her two children. Streep is not so deeply depressed, probably due to the availability of medicine and the greater acceptance of lesbian relationships---she is living with another woman and Streep’s grown daughter is part of her life.
Another key character in the film is the friend of Streep. This man is very ill due to AIDS and he has just won a very prestigious award for his poetry. Streep is planning a celebratory party for him. But he elects to kill himself instead of going to the party. The hours are just too long and hard to live through anymore for him. As he says: “I still have to face the hours.” Toward the end of this part of the story we learn that he is the little five-year-old son, now grown into manhood, the son of Moore. In one of the final scenes, after he kills himself, his mother visits Streep---she is now and elderly woman and we learn how she left her children rather than committing suicide. Did she do the “right” thing? Her son is now dead, her daughter also has died (the one she was pregnant with), and her husband died young. She simply took the bus one day and left them all behind and moved to Canada. No, she didn’t do the right thing, but she did what she had to do. As she says, to Streep, it’s what you can bear and she could no longer bear life in Los Angeles with her husband and children. “I chose life.” She had to make a choice between two wrongs, “right” was not available to her.
The Kidman/Woolf character, is living in the English countryside because it has been determined by her doctors that she will be emotionally stronger there than in London. In a great scene at the railroad station, she explains to her husband that she can’t continue to live in the countryside. She must return to London. He explains to her that she tried to kill herself twice when they were living in London and that the doctors are convinced that she should stay in the countryside. Woolf disagrees: “Only I can understand my own condition.” She is making the most powerful of arguments, the argument for self-determination. She argues that: “You can’t find peace by avoiding life.” Later, back at the house, Woolf is talking with her concerned and loving husband. (It is important to note that all the three men in these stories are caring, loving people. None of them are the source of the depression the women are experiencing. One of the messages of the movie is how loving people are fighting to keep their loved ones alive under very trying circumstances.) She tells her husband, speaking about the story she is writing, but also telling him about herself: “Someone has to die in order that the rest of us shall value life more. It’s contrast.” She also explains that: “The poet will die. The visionary.” For Woolf the task is: “To look life in the face and to love it for what it is.”
In the end she decides that suicide is the best choice for her and she loads rocks into her pockets and wades into the water and drowns herself.
I hope I have not ruined the film for you by telling you too much. However, this is a very complex film and it gets richer when you know more about what is going on. So you really benefit by watching it more than once and knowing the outcome shouldn’t undermine the film for you.
For anyone trying to better understand mental illness, this film helps you appreciate the pain of depression. It also helps you see how mental illness is influenced by the social context in which the person lives. As with just about any great film, the creators are helping you understand the importance of choices. However, in this film it is not just the choices that the principal characters make, it is also the choices we as a society make in terms of how we create resources…or fail to create them… how we make our culture part of the solution or part of the problem for those who are in pain and need our help.
What are you doing that makes it harder for those in emotional pain to survive? Don’t tell me that you are not doing anything to make life harder for others---we all are! If you are not aware of what you are doing to make it harder for others to live an emotionally healthy life, then you need to start looking more closely at what you are doing.