“To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face and to know it for what it is. At last to know it, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away. Leonard, always the years between us, always the years. Always, the love. Always, the hours.”-Virginia Woolf. Three women’s stories intertwine in the most unexpected ways in director Stephen Daldry’s 2002 drama film The Hours. The Hours captures Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep)’s lives, each at a different time and place. Despite each of their stories existing at different times, each woman has something in common- desolation due to the impact of being queer. The Hours’ representation of queer people creates the implication that being queer is destructive and is potentially fatal to the queer individual and the people they associate with by having three queer women shown in unhappy relationships. Within one hour and fifty-four minutes, The Hours displays the impact being queer has had on the main characters of the film. Since the stories of the three women are intertwined in The Hours, this essay will explore each of the queer women’s stories individually.
At the beginning of The Hours, the audience is greeted by the suicide of Virginia Woolf. In this scene Virginia walks down to the river to drown herself, as Virginia narrates the suicide letter she had left for her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane). The audience watches as Virginia slowly dies, being dragged on the bottom of the river by the flowing current. This scene acts to inform the audience that Virginia is so depressed that she cannot take living any longer. By using her death as a starting point in Virginia’s story, it gives the audience a lens to look at Virginia with. It intrigues the audience, leaves them questioning what led Virginia to kill herself. When the film returns to Virginia’s story, it then backtracks on Virginia Woolf’s timeline, to present more of Virginia’s story to the audience. The Hours portrays the time in Virginia’s life where she is working on her novel, Mrs Dalloway. Virginia struggles with depression, but tries to keep herself occupied with writing. Virginia and Leonard moved to Richmond from London, in order to give Virginia some fresh air and silence. Virginia dislikes Richmond, and confronts Leonard about the move:
Virginia Woolf: I’m dying in this town.
Leonard Woolf: If you were thinking clearly, Virginia, you would recall it was London that brought you low.
Virginia Woolf: If I were thinking clearly? If I were thinking clearly?
Leonard Woolf: We brought you to Richmond to give you peace.
Virginia Woolf: If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know. Only I can understand my condition. You live with the threat, you tell me you live with the threat of my extinction. Leonard, I live with it too.
The most happy the audience sees Virginia is when Virginia’s sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson) comes to visit with her children. Virginia is overwhelmed with joy and spends the day with her family. Before Vanessa and her children head back home , Vanessa kisses Virginia goodbye on the cheek. Virginia grabs the back of Vanessa’s head, pulls her close, and proceeds to kiss Vanessa on the lips. The length of the kiss plus the intensity is definitely non-normative for society’s family roles, even for the time this was set in. This scene plays off of the predatory lesbian stereotype, making Vanessa look helpless and Virginia look even more mentally unwell. After this queer encounter with Vanessa, Virginia suddenly plummets down into a deeper depression. Virginia’s depression not only impacts her life severely, but also everyone around her. Virginia’s husband along with her sister worry about Virginia’s mental state. Virginia begs her sister to talk well of her, to tell everyone that she is getting better, but the look on Vanessa’s face (after the kiss) tells the audience that she will not do what Virginia asks. This part of the film creates this interesting way to view Virginia, as a helpless and unstable character. Virginia dwells in her depression, and her story ends with Virginia preparing her suicide letter.
Laura Brown is a pregnant house wife in the 1950s, who struggles to fulfill the gender roles bestowed upon her. On the outside, the Brown’s seemed to be living the American dream, but in reality, depression haunted Laura Brown. Laura’s husband, Dan Brown (John C. Reilly) is a way at work during the day, so Laura watches their son, Richie (Jack Rovello). When Dan is around, Laura does everything in her power to make him happy and believe that their life together is healthy. When Dan goes to work, Laura wrestles with her depression. During the day, Laura escapes reality by reading Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs Dalloway. Laura relates to the main character in the novel, Clarissa Dalloway. Laura relates to the character Clarissa in Virginia Woolf’s novel because Clarissa is unwell but presents herself as being fine, and Laura does the same. When Laura is not reading or sleeping, she is battling depression while trying to spend time with her son and be a good house wife.
On Dan’s Birthday, Laura decides that Richie and her should make Dan a cake. Laura teaches Richie how to make a cake and they get to work. Shortly after applying the icing to the cake, Laura’s neighbor Kitty ( Toni Collette), comes over to ask Laura to watch her dog. When Kitty is waiting for Laura to make her a cup of coffee, she notices a book on the counter. Laura’s response and hesitation to elaborate on the book show how much she relates with the main character of the book:
Laura Brown: Oh, it’s about this woman who’s incredibly – well, she’s a hostess and she’s incredibly confident and she’s going to give a party. And, maybe because she’s confident, everyone thinks she’s fine… but she isn’t.
This part of the scene with Kitty seems to be an invitation for conversation about Laura’s feelings, but Kitty dismisses the summary of the novel and they begin to talk, Laura finds out that Kitty is going to have a growth in her uterus inspected by doctors at a hospital . Laura senses as Kitty anxiety about going to the hospital and goes to comfort her. As Laura hugs Kitty and kisses her head softly, her lips move down Kitty’s head and to her mouth. Laura kisses Kitty passionately and pulls away to look into Kitty’s eyes with raw emotion and desire. Yet again, the stereotype of predatory lesbians is displayed. Laura turned an ‘innocent’ kiss into a passionate one, by taking advantage of Kitty in her emotional state. Kitty gets up and pretends nothing happened, and leaves to go to the hospital, turning down every offer Laura gives to get Kitty to the hospital.
Devastated, Laura lashes out at Richie and throws away Dan’s cake. She then takes her purse into the bathroom to fill with pill bottles and takes Richie to a babysitter, Mrs. Latch (Margo Martindale). Laura checks into a hotel and begins to read Mrs Dalloway, before she follows through with her plan to overdose on pills. Laura was extremely unhappy with her marriage with Dan, with raising Richie and another child on the way, and with what had happened with Kitty that afternoon. She didn’t want to live the American dream any longer, of heteronormativity. Laura battles the urge to kill herself, and wins because she comes up with a solution- abandonment. Instead of killing herself, Laura created a plan to leave her family (not right after the suicide attempt, but within a few years of that day) in order to become who she wanted to be.
After finishing reflecting on her life and finishing Mrs Dalloway, Laura puts on the American dream facade and pretends that everything is normal. Laura picks up Richie and they go home to make Dan another cake, this one turning out perfect. Laura chose life over death, despite if it was a moral decision in the eyes of normative society.
The final queer main character in The Hours is Clarissa Vaughan, who lives in New York and is an editor. Clarissa just so happens to match Virginia Woolf’s main character in Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa is throwing an award party for her friend and former lover, Richard Brown (Ed Harris) who won an award for his book. Richard Brown just so happens to be Laura Brown’s son, but the audience doesn’t find that out until towards the end of the film. Clarissa is in a long term relationship with Sally Lester (Allison Janney), so the audience is informed that she is queer. Clarissa struggles to juggle her relationship with Sally and Richard. When the audience sees Clarissa with Sally, their relationship is portrayed as boring and almost loveless, and Clarissa seems more concerned with Richard than Sally. Any interaction that is shown between Clarissa and Sally is trivial, despite the years that they have been together. Any effort that Sally puts into showing her love for Clarissa goes unnoticed and unappreciated. It’s as if Sally is second choice to Richard, since their romantic relationship never worked out.
Clarissa tries to keep everyone happy, but never thinks of herself. She takes on being Richard’s caretaker, because he has given up the fight with AIDS. This portion of the film portrays Clarissa as having a stronger bond for Richard than for Sally. She stops in to check on him the day of the party and remind him, and he questions her about the party:
Richard Brown: Who is this party for?
Clarissa Vaughan: What are you asking, what are you trying to say?
Richard Brown: I’m not trying to say anything. I think I’m staying alive just to satisfy you.
Clarissa assures him that the party is, indeed, for Richard. She then leaves and keeps herself busy throughout the day by running errands in order to have the best award party for Richard. When Clarissa stops by to pick up Richard, he is suicidal and sitting on his windowsill. Clarissa tries to get Richard to back away from the window, but he refuses:
Clarissa Vaughn: All right Richard, do me one simple favor. Come. Come sit.
Richard Brown: I don’t think I can make it to the party, Clarissa.
Clarissa Vaughn: You don’t have to go to the party, you don’t have to go to the ceremony, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. You can do as you like.
Richard Brown: But I still have to face the hours, don’t I? I mean, the hours after the party, and the hours after that…
Clarissa Vaughn: You do have good days still. You know you do.
Richard Brown: Not really. I mean, it’s kind of you to say so, but it’s not really true.
Richard pushed himself from the windowsill and Clarissa watched in horror. The party was canceled and Clarissa spent the rest of the night cleaning her home and waiting for Laura Brown to come down from Canada. Laura stayed at Clarissa and Sally’s town home for the night. Clarissa struggled with not just losing a friend to suicide, but a former lover who she still loved. Richard had been battling AIDS for years, but could no longer stand the torment, so he took his own life.
All the queer characters in The Hours struggle to live happy lives. In every story, despite the year, every character deals with suicide, in some way. This gives the audience the idea that being queer is destructive and happiness is nonexistent for queer individuals, and additionally pushes the judgment of queer individuals by attaching a stigma to depression. This film also pushes queer stereotypes onto the viewers, strengthening the belief in these stereotypes. Heteronormative lives lead to happiness and queer lives lead to death. Not only does this film display depressed queer people, but it also gives little contrast or comparison to the film’s idea of heteronormativity.
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