Sunday, 30 December 2012

Scene on a Sunday: The Hours

For the record, finding a scene to discuss from The Hours is a complicated. True, Daldry’s ability to ensure that the three timelines overlap lends an element of similitude throughout the years, but that’s not why. There are scenes that work within themselves, but there’s always the question of wondering which is the *right* one. And, I love this film so much I could very well choose any scene to opine. I kept considering the first and last scenes with Ed Harris (so many important quotes), or the breakfast scene with Reilly and Moore, but eventually I ended up returning to Virginia. And, officially, if pushed Nicole is my favourite performer in the film but rewatching The Hours this weekend only reemphasised how foolish trying to pick a favourite of that cast is. From the main players to the bit ones, every actor is turning in excellent work. In fact, I’d argue every craftsman involved in The Hours is working at the height of their talents – or someone near.

So, even as I'm rusty from doing these write-ups, on we go.

Set-Up: In 1923 Virginia Woolf is battling her own mental issues as she prepares to write her Mrs Dalloway. She narrates earlier “a woman’s whole life in a single day….and in that day, her whole life.” And, as we observe Virginia, and Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan in their single days we get a glimpse into their own lives. And, ostensibly, Virginia’s day seems the most banal. A first line to her novel, a tiff with the maid, a visit from a visiting sister – hardly anything momentous. And yet… a visit from her sister precipitates so much....

          VIRGINIA: “And how are you, sister?” 

          VANESSA: “Frantic, it's been ridiculous in London.” 
I love that shot above, two sisters. The Hours is filled with a myriad of beautiful images. But, the thing with the beautiful images is that they don’t last very long. The overarching similarity through the timelines is the dissatisfaction each woman feels with her life, and Virginia is particularly pointed throughout about her resentment of the world she is forced to inhabit. And, her sister is aware. For example, even in that seemingly tranquil image above Vanessa countenance seems un-relaxed, and she’s choosing her words carefully.

          VIRGINIA: “Ridiculous? How?” 

          VANESSA: “Busy.” 

          VIRGINIA: “Why is busy ridiculous?”
I tend to forget how prickly a character Nicole’s Virginia is. Even as she’s working with so much narration and has so many excellent pointed lines of dialogue to work with – her expression are ace.

          VANESSA: “I would've invited you to our party, but... I knew you wouldn't come.”
And, converse to Virginia’s accusatory glare is Vanessa’s face of trepidation. Of course, part of the dilemma of Cunningham’s novel seeming unadaptable is the wealth of backstory which underlies seemingly incidental things like this conversation. There is all the history of Virginia and Vanessa’s filial relationship. Then, there’s the added history of Virginia’s resentment – Vanessa is free to go to the city as she pleases. Free to live her life out of confinement. And, Hare with his script wisely decides not to pack the screenplay with explanatory dialogue. The basic tenets are there, the actors fill in the blanks.
          VIRGINIA: “Did you? How did you know that?”

          VANESSA: “I thought you never came to town.”

          VIRGINIA: “That's because you no longer ask me.”

          VANESSA: “Are you not forbidden to come? Do the doctors not forbid it?”
After the main four (Virginia, Laura, Clarissa and Richard) I’m most appreciative of the work Miranda and Stephen turn in. Miranda would probably make my top 10 supporting women of the year and it’s so much more demure performance from her than I’m used to. To counteract the multitudes of internal thought lost in the book’s translation to the screen I feel like the actors are forced – even more than usual – to act through their expressions. And Vanessa and Virginia are telling so much with their looks.

          VIRGINIA: “Oh, the doctors!”

          VANESSA: “Do you not pay heed to your doctors?”

          VIRGINIA: “Not when they are a bunch of contemptible Victorians!”

          VANESSA: “So, what are you saying? Are you feeling better? Has this vastness made you stronger?”

          VIRGINIA: “I'm saying, Vanessa, that even crazy people like to be asked.”

That line lands like a thud as we move from what should have been a tranquil conversation between sisters into…

And a potential argument moves to a rumination on dead things....
....more below the jump....

          QUENTIN (OS): “Nessa, Nessa, Nessa...”
I love how as Quentin and the others arrive we move from Virginia’s despondent face to Vanessa, not quite guilty but certainly feeling badly and her face changes to accommodate the children as she asks….
          VANESSA: “Hello changelings. What have you got?”

          VANESSA (OS): “What have you found?”
And, once again, Virginia is shut out.

          QUENTIN: “We found a bird.”
          VANESSA: “Did you? Where did you find that?”

          QUENTIN: “I think he must have fallen from a tree.”
There’s so much going on in the image immediately above. Miranda’s face as Vanessa is being almost farcically invested in her children. Then Quentin with the bird as the silent Angelica observes. Then, there is (historically, legendary at least) violent Julian disinterested in all and Virginia looming almost like a Grim Reaper in the middle, destroying the peaceful potential of the shot. (Also, I love the entire ensemble on Miranda which you can’t see too well there. Ann Roth’s costume’s are excellent in this.)

          VANESSA: “Oh my Goodness! Just look at him.”

          QUENTIN: “We might be able to save him.”

          VANESSA: “Save him? I think you have to be careful, Quentin.There's a time to die, and it may be the bird's time...” 
I love how we return to Virginia on the final half of the final sentence…. Death is such an important thing for her.

          JULIAN: “Let's pick some grass to make a grave.” 
(I also love how almost all the shots here are being “destroyed” by the presence of that looming statue.)

          VANESSA: “Oh, Julian!”

          JULIAN: “I'm just saying, he at least needs a bed to die on.”

What is she thinking?

          QUENTIN (OS): “Come on, Nessa, let's make a grave!”

Is Virginia pondering on her own childless life? Is she considering the death of the bird and her planned death of the protagonist in Mrs Dalloway? Is she still feeling resentment for Vanessa’s easy life?

          QUENTIN: “Nessa, come on!”

          VANESSA: “God, very well, I'm coming wait for me there!”

          VANESSA (OS): “Angelica, we'll be allright, stay with your aunt. You're going too fast, ooh!”

I love the cut from Nicole looking down to the shot of Angelica’s hand appearing towards the bottom of the screen patting the bird.
The obsession with mortality (again, something which transcends all the timelines) is another thing particularly important to the narrative in The Hours. The symbolic worth of the dead bird is important even before Virginia begins to speak of it. Biblically, the parallels made between a small bird and the human life are significant and the audience already knows of Virginia’s eventual suicide (the film begins with it), and as an artistic person even though the death of a bird seems incidental – its profundity is surely not lost on Virginia, and surely should not be lost on the audience.

And how gorgeous is Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography? I love the light coming in on the bark of the tree.

          VIRGINIA: “Do you think she'd like roses?”
Notice how the bush of flowers almost seem to be making a halo around Virginia’s head?

It’s not by chance that Virginia is at her most sedate during this scene. True, it fits with the typically morbidity of her legacy that it’s during a scene with death that she seems most peaceable, but there’s also the significance of her being close to nature here. Her expression on the shot above is almost ethereal.

          ANGELICA: “Is this a "she"?”

          VIRGINIA: “Yes, the females are larger and less colourful.”

          ANGELICA: “What happens when we die?”

          VIRGINIA: “What happens? We return to the place that we came from.”
Remember what I was saying about the importance of the facial expressions? There’s an entire significant narrative bit in the novel where Virginia ponders on this moment and there’s a wealth of words that – one may argue – is lost in translation. And, yet, Nicole’s expressions just devastate me. When considering Nicole’s performance as an Oscar worthy one, people tend to remember the train station scene (truly, every beat of her performance is on point for me). But, the louder beats of that scene are not what define her performance. It’s the silent scenes where her effectiveness is most prominent.

          ANGELICA: “I don't remember where I came from.”
 Child actress Sophie Wyburd is just precious in this scene.

          VIRGINIA: “Nor do I.”

          ANGELICA: “She's very small.”

          VIRGINIA: “Yes...yes, that's one of the things that happen... We look smaller.”

          ANGELICA: “But very peaceful.”
This is my favourite shot of Nicole's face here. The Hours is not a movie for those not willing to put into the work. Virginia’s tears there might seem so banal for the average viewer but there’s that wealth of importance beneath. In addition to the symbolism of the dead bird on the ostensible level, it bears remembrance that even before this Virginia had made two suicide attempts. And, it’s almost as if considering how small, and insignificant the bird looks Virginia realises – perhaps, no, she is not ready for death as yet. And, it’s as if truly looking at a dead thing she the magnitude of life (and of death).
          VANESSA: “Is it done? Have you finished? Is the bird funeral complete?”

          VIRGINIA: “Yes.”

          VANESSA: “Well then, are we going to be denied altogether for coming so early?”

          VIRGINIA: “No, of course not.”

          VANESSA: “Come on, come on, boys, we'll have a cup of tea. Oh, stop it, Julian! Julian, come inside!”

And, voila, my favourite shot of the scene. So simple and so, so beautiful. And I love how the camera doesn’t stand-still but slowly gets closer and closer to Virginia.
Daldry’s camera seems to be almost intervening on something sacred and private. And another nice cut from Virginia’s face to the bird.
What is she thinking?

(I know, I know, what a morbid return for Scene on a Sunday.)
Check out all the Scene on a Sundays all the way from Annie Hall to Titanic to Funny Girl.

Do Nicole’s silence impress you? Which part of the scene impresses more? Vanessa and Virginia’s conversation or the bird funeral?


Nikhat said...

I love everything about this post. EVERYTHING.

Virginia with the bird just kills me. It's so sad and slightly eerie.

I was rewatching this recently. Have you noticed the amount of flowers shown in this film? Not just real flowers, like the first screengrab but wallpapers, clothes, jewelry, even on aprons? This film is the probably the most feminine film I have ever seen. So much better than the novel even.

dinasztie said...

“I'm saying, Vanessa, that even crazy people like to be asked.”

Heartbreak. Nicole is killing it in this movie and I learned to love this performance.

The scene at the station is the greatest, though. It's a masterclass in acting. "I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark and only I can know, only I can understand my own condition." She emphasises each and every word and they get such weight as a result, making it the most heartbreaking performance of the movie (and my personal favorite as well). My Best Actress pick for the year is Julianne, but Nicole is so freakin' great, too.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

nikhat i did notice the flower thing. there are so many potential conversations to have about this film and its attention to detail, really astounding. and even amidst all the gloom the little things like the fauna make it seem so pleasant visually.

daniel 2002 was a great year for acting, and this film was THE acting melting pot of the year. streep, reilly, moore, richardson all did work in other films that year and the entire cast is doing great work here.