The Hours, released in 2002, was directed by Stephen Daldryâ€”who also directed Billy Elliotâ€”and is based on the novel by Michael Cunningham. David Hare wrote the screenplay, Seamus McGarvey was the director of photographyâ€”and was also the DP for the film Atonementâ€”and Philip Glass wrote the music for the film. The Hours won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama, and Nicole Kidman won a golden globe and an Academy Award for Best Performance by An Actress in a Motion Picture â€“ Drama. The film follows three women in three different decades: Virginia Wolf (played by Nicole Kidman) writing her novel â€śMrs. Dallowayâ€? in 1923, Laura Brown (played by Julianne Moore) as a 1951 pregnant housewife, and Clarissa Vaughan (played by Meryl Streep) as a modern woman in 2001 planning a party for her homosexual friend Richard (played by Ed Harris) who is dying of AIDS. All three women are connected by Virginia Wolfâ€™s book â€śMrs. Dallowayâ€?â€”Wolfâ€™s tumultuous emotions and dark thoughts influence her writing of her protagonist, Laura is reading â€śMrs. Dallowayâ€? and relates to the protagonist, and Clarissaâ€”nicknamed â€śMrs. Dallowayâ€? by Richardâ€”represses her dissatisfaction with her life. All three women fight depression and struggle to find meaning in their lives.
The Hours, then, is a story about three women trapped within their mundane lives by their repressive society and their personal apprehensions as they struggle for agency and independence.
I believe that this film also employs Laura Mulveyâ€™s concept of the gaze in her article â€śVisual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.â€? According to Mulvey:
Women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-nessâ€¦Traditionally, the women displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic subject for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen.
This scene comes from the chapter â€śThe Hoursâ€? in which the three female protagonists are introduced and shown going through their morning routines. It is in this scene that Mulveyâ€™s concept of the gaze is utilized in order to further trap these women within the film and outside of the film.
This first shot is of the main title of the film: a black background with white titles. The title is simple, understated, much like the women in this film. In the film are themes such as: discovering the meaning of life and searching for hope. Thus, the white titles convey a sense of hopefulness in the darkness. Also, the black background symbolizes death, and since the scene prior to this one was of Virginia Wolf committing suicide, we understand that this film is about the interplay of death and life, of hope and despair, of black and white.
In a long shot, the camera tracks to the left, following the Curtis & Son Transfer and Storage Truck as it pulls into a traditional 1950s style neighborhood. By initially focusing on the bright orange truck, the audience understands that this is a newly developed neighborhood where people are moving to, which sets up the context for Laura Brown and her lifestyle. The houses are nearly identical to one another, and the trees are perfectly placed alongside the road; the setting is uniform and dull, just like Lauraâ€™s life. As the truck drives down the road, we see another nice car drive beside it and a man in a suit walk from his houseâ€”this is a middle class neighborhood. Before we even meet Laura, we know that she is trapped in a world with no individuality, little colorâ€”the color palette is made up of oranges and pale greensâ€”and no passion.
Still a long shot, the camera tracks to the left as the nice car drives into a driveway. The camera follows the man as he gets out of his car and white titles appear telling us the year is 1951 and the location is Los Angeles. With his hair slicked back and wearing a white shirt and dress pants we know he is a white, middle class male just like all the rest living in this suburban neighborhood. As the camera tracks left, palm tree trunks obscure the audienceâ€™s view; again there is a sense of imprisonment, that whoever lives inside the house is caged. In his arm he is holding a bouquet of yellow rosesâ€”flowers are essential to this film, and in most shots there are flowers present. Because this film centers on Wolfâ€™s novel â€śMrs. Dalloway,â€? flowers become a representation of not only her novel but also of the mundane activities of these three womenâ€™s lives. In the book, Mrs. Dalloway is throwing a party and decides to buy flowers. But as the story progresses, she contemplates the meaninglessness of her life and the seemingly irrelevant things she does, like buying flowers. The flowers become a symbol of life and meaning and beauty.
The camera cuts to a medium shot of the man in his home carrying the flowers and tracks to the left as he sets the flowers down and looks at his watch for the second timeâ€”clearly he is a busy man who likes everything in order. The colors in the house appear dull and lifeless; there are hints of red in the flowers behind him, symbolizing passion and lust, which is what his wife Laura desperately longs for. The focus of this scene is the flowers, because they are the brightest objects in the house.
The camera cuts to Lauraâ€™s husband peering at her from the doorway. In the doorway, he is merely an outsider looking in, gazing at his wife. The film implies that he will never truly understand her, that he can only see what is on the surface rather than discovering what lies inside her soul. Because Laura is in a vulnerable position by being asleep and unaware of her husbandâ€™s presence, his gaze could be classified as voyeuristic (Kaplan, Women and Film: Both sides of the camera, p. 14). According to Mulvey in her article â€śVisual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,â€? a voyeuristic gaze is sadistic and controlling. As the audience gazes at Lauraâ€™s husband gazing at Laura, the audience â€śidentifies with the main male protagonistâ€? (41). The male in this scene, then, gains power and objectifies the female. This is surely the case for Laura and her husband. In another scene later on, he continually calls for her to come to bed, much to her disgust. He treats her as an object fit for his pleasure and not as a human being with emotions and desires.
The camera tracks right to a close-up of Laura, whom we see sleeping; she is the passive object of her husbandâ€™s erotic gaze. She is not only trapped within her marriage and her society, but by her husbandâ€™s gaze; asleep, she is vulnerable and unaware, a helpless victim whom we sympathize with.
The camera cuts to a new manâ€”who the audience later discovers is Virginia Wolfâ€™s husband Leonardâ€”walking along a park in Richmond, England. The camera tracks to the right as he walks along the park, his movement stiff and deliberate. The color palette of this scene is quite unlike the washed out colors of Los Angeles. In this location, the color palette is made up of dark tones: dark greens, and browns. The man is shrouded in shadows, and even as he descends stone steps to a lower plane with lush green trees, he becomes immersed in shadow. The dark colors symbolize the manâ€™s passionless nature, his calculable sensibility, and his brooding fear for his wifeâ€™s well-being.
The camera cuts to a leftward tracking shot of the man entering a gateâ€”another symbol of imprisonmentâ€”, at which point the camera tracks upward, over the gate, and holds for a long shot of the house and its surroundings. Yet again the color palette is dark. From this perspective, with the leaves on the left so close to the camera, the audience feels as though they are peering over the gate into this secret life, that they are glimpsing something hidden away.
The camera cuts first to a shot of the man inside his house, littered with books, and then to another shot angled downward, as if the audience is peering down at the two men from above. The house, what with its dark woods and absence of light, seems ominous and drab. In the second shot, a long birdâ€™s eye shot of the two men, the audience takes on an insiderâ€™s point-of-view. In a way, the audience is gazing voyeuristically at the two men; the audience becomes the active participant objectifying the males in the scene. Because the women in this film are searching for power and independence, this shot strips the power from the men and gives it to the audience.
The camera then tracks upward slowly to a doorway and cuts to a close-up rightward tracking shot of Virginia Wolfâ€™s bedroom. The camera stops as it reaches her face. This is similar to the shot of Laura Brown in bed. By creating a similar shotâ€”there are many more montage shots later onâ€”the director emphasizes a connection between the two women. Her dark hair is loose and contrasts greatly to her pale skin and white sheets and nightgown.
The next shot is a long establishing shot of the third and final location: New York City in 2001. A train passes by, blurring the image so that objects become unclear. This is a film about discovery and contemplation; the protagonist of this location, Clarissa, doesnâ€™t know how to solve the problem of her unhappiness and is blind to just how miserable she is.
As the train passes, the pillars of the subway look similar to the bars of a cage; Clarissa is trapped inside her own life due to her repressed emotions and her regrets. Before Clarissa is even introduced, the director hints at her imprisonment and her stifling environment.
In this medium shot of Clarissaâ€™s partner Sally, the color palette is composed of contrasts: bright red contrasted against black and white (like the titles of the film). Red is the color of sin, passion, and desire. Possible infidelity is hinted at when Sally sneaks into bed with Clarissa, thus Sallyâ€™s red coat symbolizes her sinful activities, or it signifies that she is a passionate individual, unlike Clarissa who represses her emotions.
The camera cuts to an extreme long shot of the apartment building where Clarissa and Sally live. This shot establishes where Clarissa lives.
The camera cuts to Sally entering the building and then being inside her bedroom. Initially the shot is a close-up of Sally from the knees down as she takes off her pants. The camera tracks to the right as she unclothes, and the audience can see her reflected in one of the mirrors. Mirrors become important in this film, and especially in this scene.
The camera tracks to the right, following Sally as she enters the bed and then centers on a close-up of Clarissa, her eyes slowly opening. This image is similar to the one of Virginia and Laura both in bed, and connects Clarissa to her other female protagonists. Due to these nearly identical shots, the director creates continuity within the film and implies that his themes are universal throughout, that these women, despite living in different decades, are strikingly similar. This shotâ€™s color palette is nearly all white, white being the symbol for purity and contrasts against Sallyâ€™s bright red coat. The colors in this scene create a tension, because Sally trades her sinful color for a purer one, which mirror her attempt at fooling Clarissa.
The next sequence of shots is a montage of the three womenâ€™s morning routine. The camera returns to a high-angle shot of Laura looking for her husband and realizing he isnâ€™t beside her. By looking down at her, she appears smaller and more vulnerable, a helpless woman trapped in a loveless marriage.
In this close-up, Virginia moves her head in a way similar to Laura in the last shot. Again the director creates continuity between the three women.
The camera cuts to Clarissa turning off her alarm and sitting farther up, her grey hair loose and long against her back. The headboard of her bed has red and blue flowersâ€”flowers to hint at the â€śMrs. Dallowayâ€? storyâ€”on it, two colors that come up again and again in this filmâ€”blue representing Clarissaâ€™s melancholy and red representing her desire for love.
The camera cuts to a medium shot of Clarissa, who makes sure to turn off the light before entering the bathroomâ€”she is a perfectionist who needs to have everything her way, and cannot allow things to happen outside of her control.
The camera tracks leftâ€”note the orchids in the picture, another reference to the Dalloway storyâ€”and stops as she does her hair. The color palette of this shot is bland, nearly stripped of all color, much like Clarissaâ€™s lifestyle; her dissatisfaction with life is represented by the objects around her.
In accordance with a montage, this scene is also of Virginia putting up her hair in much the same way as Clarissaâ€”they are mirror images of one another in two different worlds. Clarissa is called â€śMrs. Dallowayâ€? by her friend Richard because Clarissa goes about her day while hiding her insecurities just like the protagonist of the novel. In a scene later on, Richard says to her, â€śOh Mrs. Dalloway, always giving parties to cover the silence.â€? Virginiaâ€™s image is also trapped within the mirror at her dressing table, a reference to her dueling personalitiesâ€”she is schizophrenicâ€”as well as a symbol of her imprisonment. With Mulveyâ€™s three gazes in mind, Virginia is not only trapped within the lens of the camera but she is also trapped within the frame of the mirror.
In this close-up of Clarissa, the audience looks over her shoulderâ€”they see what Clarissa sees and thus takes on her point-of-view. Her gaze is directed at herself; it is an introspective gaze because she is searching for happiness and meaning.
In this shot, Virginia stops and gazes at herself in the mirror, but this time the audience does not get to see what she sees at first. Her gaze is a mystery, which implies that the audience will never truly understand how Virginia sees the world or what goes on inside her head. This is true for all three women. Next to the window, her shape is very dark, much like her mood.
The camera cuts to a close-up of Virginia gazing at herself in the mirror, much like Clarissa; she appears dissatisfied, even angry, with what she sees. She, like Clarissa, is trapped within the cameraâ€™s gaze and within her own gaze. This gaze, like Clarissaâ€™s, is introspective.
This shot is of Laura in bed, with her book â€śMrs. Dalloway.â€? Her belly is exposed, so the audience knows she is pregnant. She slides her hand down her chest, near her breast, in a seemingly sexual wayâ€”she is a woman who desires passion but does not receive it from her husband. Also, the wallpaper and her nightgown have red flowers on itâ€”red for passion and flowers as another hint at the Dalloway story.
Intercut with the previous scene are a few scenes with Lauraâ€™s husband searching the cupboards for a bowl. Clearly, he does not cook but rather acts as the â€śmanlyâ€? man of the house.
Virginia Wolf takes another look at herself in the mirror with little interest before heading out the door. She cares little for her appearance, and with her hair loose and falling out the audience understands her as a wild, restless woman who desires freedom above all else.
The next montage consists of three shots of all three women in a row, staring into space, looking pensive. This is a film, after all, about women trying to figure out whatâ€™s missing in their lives.
The next brief montage is of flowersâ€”red flowers for Clarissa to symbolize her desire for passion, yellow flowers for Laura as a means of cheering her up, and blue flowers for Virginia to symbolize her sadness. The people touching the flowers also say something about each character and their time period. Clarissa grabs her flowers because she has a controlling, perfectionist mentality. Lauraâ€™s husband touches the flowers because he is the man of the house, the man in charge of what Laura receives. In the last picture, the maid touches the flowers, which says something about the class system for Virginia Wolfâ€™s time period; she is cared for and sheltered, and she loathes it.
The Hours emphasizes universal themes, unaffected by the passing of time. It is a film about three women trapped inside themselves, longing to break free and attain true happiness. They struggle with depression, desire, loneliness, and the need to please others. The film not only contains aspects of a voyeuristic male gaze, but also a female introspective gaze. In gazing at their reflections, they are searching within themselves for meaning as well as searching for it in their environments. In the film, Nicole Kidman (as Virginia Wolf) summarizes the film best: â€śA womanâ€™s whole life in a single day. Just one day. And in that dayâ€¦her whole life.â€? The repetitive music, continuity, and montage sequences help to blend the three women together into one unified subject, one woman screaming for freedom. In this pivotal scene there is no dialogue; rather, gazes and simple activities convey greater meaning. The film asks these questions: what has meaning? Does anything I do matter? Are these trivial activities meaningless? Do I have self worth if my life is dull? An important reason for their discontent is that all three women struggle with their homosexuality and their need for passion. They are trapped within loveless relationships, within the gaze of the camera, the gaze of the spectator, and their own gaze. They are bound in silence, struggling to embrace life. Yet they do not often become objectified by the males in the film. Laura is the only one who is an object of sexual desire for her husband. By gazing at themselves, they become both active subject and passive object (Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, p. 39). They acknowledge that they have the power and agency to change themselves, yet they also relinquish that power and enable themselves to be passive objects, victims to their surroundings.