Stephen Daldry (2002)
I WAS LIVING IN NEW YORK CITY on September 11, 2001, and for months afterward, I walked around in a strange daze, wondering what the hell had happened, what to do now, how to cope. The stench of smoke hung in the air, a constant reminder that the tragedy we’d all experienced was not yet in the rearview, as much as we wished it to be.
2002 quickly arrived and became a year of reckoning for me, of dealing with life in all its ridiculousness and struggling to find meaning in any of it. It was during this grim time that I saw The Hours.
Directed by Stephen Daldry (from a script by David Hare, based on the book by Michael Cunningham), The Hours tells the story of three women in three different eras, all connected via Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. The film has nothing overtly to do with 9/11, yet watching it was like looking into a mirror; it was as if Daldry and Hare had tailor-made a perfect reflection of the emotional rollercoaster I’d been on for more than a year.
In the film, we see each woman deal with life’s difficulties in different ways. First, there’s Laura Brown (played by Julianne Moore), a 1950s housewife who attempts to deal with her struggles by disconnecting. For Laura, domestic bliss is a depressing lie. But real life is too messy, entirely too hard to engage with. So she reads (Mrs. Dalloway), sleeps, ignores. When disconnection proves not enough, Laura self-medicates, and eventually considers taking her own life: the ultimate detachment.
Second, there’s Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a contemporary New Yorker who attempts to quiet her pain by overcompensating. She buys flowers; she gives parties. She’s always going. Her friend Richard Brown (Ed Harris), who playfully calls her “Mrs. Dalloway,” is on the brink of death, and it’s the specter of his absence that motivates Clarissa’s constant motion. “Oh, Mrs. Dalloway,” Richard says to her, “Always giving parties to cover the silence.” Because if she ever stopped to think about the silence—or, God forbid, actually try to live in it—she fears it would overwhelm her.
“She’s incredibly confident and she’s going to give a party,” Laura says at one point, describing Mrs. Dalloway (the literal and figurative), “And maybe because she’s confident, everyone thinks she’s fine.”
Lastly, there’s Virginia Woolf herself (Nicole Kidman), who chooses to deal with the darkness by soaking in it, by allowing it to drown her. There’s a beautiful scene in which a bird dies and Virginia stares into its darkened eyes as though looking into death itself. It’s brave but hopeless, and in the end gives no salve.
In the months following 9/11, the temptation to respond in one of these ways—to check out, to overcompensate, or to dwell unhealthily on it—was strong. For more than a year I felt like a freak, and I wondered if I was the only one wandering around lost, a victim of my own hopeless thoughts. So when I saw The Hours in December 2002, I felt tremendous gratitude at the realization that I was not alone. I felt, too, a powerful kinship with these actors and filmmakers who had so perfectly articulated the swirling voices of fear and anxiety inside my head.
“You cannot find peace by avoiding life,” Virginia Woolf says at one point in the film. And this is the great truth the film gifted me. Tragically, it’s a character’s suicide that most strikingly makes this point. When Richard takes his life late in the film, it’s a shock for us all, but mostly for his closest friend, Clarissa. But through this desperate situation Clarissa is forced to wake up, and this leads to a moment of hopeful grace in the end. Clarissa chooses life, with all its joy and tragedy.
We all have to face the hours—and feel them, as dark and desperate as that can often be—but we don’t have to succumb to them. The Hours is a reminder not to hide from whatever seasons bring, but to engage. For seasons come and go, but joy and peace can always be found again.
Tony Hale started in television acting on Arrested Development and has received two Emmy awards for his work on HBO’s Veep. His film credits include The Informant!, Stranger than Fiction, and the upcoming Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.