Mrs Dalloway, or the story behind the story behind the story:
When Michael Cunningham – author of The Hours, winner of the Pulitzer – was fifteen, a bookmobile would come into his neighbourhood in Los Angeles. One afternoon, chiefly to impress a crush, he checked out a book that nobody had borrowed before: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
In the novel, considered by many to be Woolf’s finest work, it is a delightful June day in London at the end of the Great War, and Mrs Clarissa Dalloway, hostess of some repute and great breeding, wife of a minor politician, prepares for a society party she will throw that evening. Woven around that single strand by way of a plot, appear characters Clarissa has known in the past, and loved – Peter Walsh, a former beau, and Sally Seton, former best friend (one might even suggest, lover). As also, people she has never known, and would not be likely to meet in the highly class conscious English society of the time, the hapless Septimus Warren Smith, discharged soldier, war hero, and patient of shell shock who will, before the party begins, kill himself. Through the curious crisscross of lives and feelings, Woolf tells the history of all humanity – full of light and darkness, and life and deathwish, and sorrow and memory – in the action of a single day.
Fifteen-year-old Cunningham was transfixed by the book. In the nineties, already a writer of eminence if not stardom, he decided to rework Mrs Dalloway into a modern-day retelling; indeed, he had always wanted to do something with it. But, then, as is wont to be in the hands of a writer in his prime, the book quickly became something else.
The Hours: the book
Cunningham’s The Hours is a complex tribute, not only to Mrs Dalloway, the novel, and Virginia Woolf, its writer – but also to the league of extraordinary ordinary women whose suburban everyday lives Woolf had attempted to make worthy of great art, the value of whose lived experiences she had so vigorously defended in her feminist classic A Room of One’s Own. It is thus, Cunningham points out, a tribute to his mother.
Consequently, there are three parallel stories in The Hours, three women living out one day in their lives. Virginia Woolf, in 1920s England, battles bouts of grave depression as she attempts to write her magnum opus, Mrs Dalloway, coming up with its memorable first line in the course of the morning – “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” – between interruptions by the maid and bursts of vague anxiety about her sister’s visit that was planned for later on in the day. Mrs Brown, a young housewife in 1940s postwar Los Angeles, pregnant with her second child, reads Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway with a searing hunger that throws the banal reality of her life in an off-kilter haze; even as she bakes a cake for her husband’s birthday, comforts a neighbor due to go into hospital – and in a strangely passionate moment finds herself kissing her – she contemplates suicide. Clarissa Vaughan, the contemporary Mrs Dalloway, a book editor, lives in Manhattan with her life partner Sally, and is throwing a party for her best friend and former lover, Richard-the-writer, who is dying of AIDS. In a continuous loop of engaging dialogue with Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Cunningham’s book begins: “There are still the flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour.”
The Hours: the movie
Translating the multi-layered narrative of this novel – crafted as it is, with emphasis on a poetic quality that is both spare and rich – into the medium of cinema is no mean task, but director Stephen Daldry and screenplay writer David Hare have come as close as it might be possible to a perfect compromise. They have pushed the frontiers of collaborative exercise to make a film that while is close enough to the novel, is true to its own form. That is, in my book, a big feat.
The realities of Clarissa Vaughan, Laura Brown and Virginia Woolf, when set against the looming beauty and confinement of their tactile worlds, become powerful presences in the story. That is where the film provides a remarkable canvas to the complexity of sorrow, through its elaborate attention to detail: Virginia Woolf lies down on the soft mud in the dimly greenish light in her garden, beside a dead bird for whom her nephews and niece have arranged a funeral; Laura Brown drives into a posh hotel, in the afternoon, books a room, gets under the perfectly laundered sheets and fingers her little bottle of sleeping pills wondering what it would be like to die; Clarissa Vaughan separates eggs expertly into a bowl while talking of youth and love and the house they had shared one summer, to Louis, an old friend/beau, Cunningham’s counterpart to Peter Walsh.
The powerhouse performances. Nicole Kidman’s inspired performance as the tormented Virginia Woolf, battling with her demons and pining for London, even as she creates and crafts with the effortless felicity of genius which draws from some deep inscrutable pool within, won her the Academy Award. Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughan (Dalloway) and Ed Harris as Richard-the-writer are exquisite, underplayed; Streep articulates with sensitivity the glamorous yet resonant banality of lives where freedoms have come by easily – and Harris, essays with aplomb, the poet who at the threshold of fame, realizes, most clearly, the extent of his failure. However, it is Julianne Moore as Laura Brown that, in my opinion, plays the most complicated, restrained and fiddly role. And finally, in one epiphanic moment, her character brings together all three stories in the climax, where Laura Brown’s chemistry with her little boy transcends to the deepest relationship that is suggested but not narrated in the film; the miasma of absences.
The sheer art of Cunningham’s prose. It is a tribute to Woolf alright, with its poetry, precision and jazz-like riffing where you don’t know exactly where the sentence is going to go and exactly how the meaning is going to strike your soul, but it does, and with what intensity.
T-2 pick: Very very difficult choice – but the book.
Ultimately, the writerly voice has the freedom to problematize every little story, incident, version that it narrates – and thereby, give the characters a subtler finesse; that is the limitless possibility of words. The filmmaker who is operating within the genre of beginning-middle-and-end (in that order) cannot compete easily in this regard since he has to tell the stories in three hours or less – and get out of there. Thus the realizations that were profound in the head sound slightly mawkish out loud, as dialogue, and the deep insights into sexuality and memory that the book offers are partly lost in translation. The lines with which the film is drawn are far less blurry, and therein it expresses the impossible beauty, after all, of misreadings.