The Hours: A Review (from a psychological point of view)

by helenwhattt

Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours” (2002) is a fearless exploration of alienation, mental anguish and the complex web of interconnectivity between ourselves and others- in this case three women; Virginia Woolf (played by Nicole Kidman), writing her novel Mrs Dalloway, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) a frustrated ‘50s American housewife on the verge of collapse and working her way through the aforementioned novel, and Meryl Streep’s character Clarissa Vaughan, who, living in 2001 NYC, is planning a party for her friend, who alongside being a celebrated writer, is suffering from AIDS. All three women, directly or indirectly are affected by depression, suicide and the affect it has on those around the sufferer, in the duration of the film.

It becomes immediately apparent, not only the relationships each character holds with the people surrounding them, but the way each of the three women are connected to each other as well. Filmicly, it’s illustrated subtly yet intentionally, the parallel narratives and the plethora of similarities between all three characters and/or their situations are undeniable, whether it be a shared experience with the novel Mrs Dalloway itself, each of the writers committing suicide, even down to such minute details as Clarissa’s name being shared with the protagonist of Woolf’s novel. Each character, however, has their own way of dealing with what goes around them, and dealing with the people that surround them too- perhaps it’s the investigation of the alienating affects of mental illnesses such as depression, and subsequently how that affects those close to the afflicted that is the most commendable feat of the film.

Depression, not unlike a whole array of other mental illnesses, is one whose understanding is clouded by the stigma of public perception- something that “The Hours” goes some way to investigate. Those afflicted by the condition are often met with, rather than sympathy, bewilderment that someone who has it “so good” could feel that depth of despair; certainly, when Virginia’s husband comments that “if I could walk midmorning, I’d be a happy man”, we can’t help but see the implications, the questioning of why Virginia herself is unhappy, if she can have such privileges. Likewise, when Laura Brown’s visitor exclaims “I don’t understand why you find it so difficult” we as an audience can only assume that she wasn’t just talking about the cake, and the comment was loaded with deeper significance. It highlights the confusion a lot of friends and families feel when a loved one is struck ill with depression, the misunderstanding, and the despair of why they just can’t “get on with it”.

Equally, it seems to illustrate the symptoms of depression and behaviours exhibited by the depressed with relative clarity. Laura Brown’s repressed emotional agony is perhaps our most recognised manifestation of the illness, a private torment rather than an outward exhibitionism. Virginia’s cold exterior might be in part true to her real-life mythology, but perhaps here we encounter yet another face of the illness- in the three case we’re provided with in the film, Virginia, Laura and Richard (Clarissa’s writer friend), all faces should be- when we consider the reality of their condition- seen as brave.

Perhaps what is most interesting and relevant about the film, is the way that it portrays the effect depression has on not only those it affects, but those who surround them. One thing often discussed when talking of depression is the paradox of the sick persons temperament. By it’s nature, depression is an isolating illness, but there is always a part of the person that wants to recover, wants to survive and will reach out to do so, even if they cannot articulate the pain they are in or the help that they need. “The Hours” illustrates this perfectly. The desperation behind Virginia’s kissing of her sister couldn’t fail to move anyone, her frantic clutching at a lifeline, a bridge into the outside world, of a normality free of terrifying swings in mood she was forced to experience. She herself attests that “even crazy people like to be asked” out, and perhaps that is the most striking thing about Virginia’s story in the film; not only is she isolated and imprisoned by her illness, but her illness and made her incapable, under doctors orders, of experiencing the freedom she so desires, leaving her trapped in a vicious cycle.

Simultaneously, the exploration of Virginia’s condition in particular also highlights the frustration many depressives encounter when confronted about “expert opinion” on their illness. To under go such private, hellish torment is bad enough, and then to be told that you no longer know what’s best for you on top of that must make the whole thing next to unendurable. Depressives are often met with gentle patronising when discussing their issues, indeed Leonard Woolf rather condescendingly declares- considering the immense intellectual and creative power Virginia held as an individual, not to mention the often ignored self-discipline she must have possessed in order to still create work of such beauty even when in the clutches of a crippling mental disorder- “it’s not your voice” when Virginia was trying to explain to him they way she was feeling. To have decision making, especially about your own life, removed from your power because you’re deemed “too ill” to make your own decisions would be hard for anyone, but for someone of Virginia’s intelligence, it would’ve been in itself maddening. She explodes; “only I can understand my own condition”, a feeling echoed by many depressives, not to mention people affected by innumerable other mental disorders, and perhaps rightly so, when they’re dealing with such a personal torture.

The “selfishness” of depression in particular is something often quoted by those affected indirectly by it- even if they don’t necessarily mean that the inflicted themselves are intrinsically selfish people, they still manage to imply the disorder itself is selfish, or the sufferers are at least made selfish by the disorder. “The Hours” tackles this with surprising sensitivity. Virginia insists, to Leonard that she “wish[es] that I could be happy for you”, and, instead of decrying her as an abhorrent anti-mother, when it’s revealed that Laura Brown, after he decided against committing suicide for the first time, disappeared and abandoned her two children, it’s addressed with understanding and emotion, sympathy for what Laura went through. One grave misunderstanding about depressives and the tragic suicides that sometimes accompany them is the idea that the act of taking one’s own life, or abandoning the life you were leading, is a selfish action. Indeed, it might adversely affect those around you, and you might be doing it simply to make yourself feel better again, or at least to make the bad go away- but, as the now-aged Laura Brown asserts, it’s not through decision-making in the purest, most stable form it comes in- depressive act the way they do because they, quite simply, feel they have “no choice” in the matter. Laura Brown, if she wanted to save herself, realised it was the only thing she could do. They are slaves to the emotions they are burdened with, and rather than decry the suicidally depressed as self-involved and uncaring, we should take into account the depth or misery the must be feeling in order to have such thoughts in the first place- certainly, it’s a place the vast majority of people should be incredibly grateful they never have to visit.

However, the affect suicides do have on those surrounding the deceased wasn’t completely brushed over. When Richard finally flings himself from his apartment building, Clarissa’s didn’t meet it with understanding, and quite rightly too. The agony those who witness a suicide, especially of a close friend, having to deal with the assortment of thoughts of guilt and self-blame that come with it, can only be second, presumably, to the pain of the suicidal person themselves. Clarissa tries to convince him to stay, telling him “people stay alive for each other”; that to kill himself would not only destroy him, but destroy her with it. Sadly, as is the case with many suicides around the world, Richard couldn’t see it from her perspective. Any human desire for self-preservation, or thought for those around him was consumed, in the all-encompassing way of depression, and Richard knew that if he were unable to live with the terrible emotions he was burdened with, and  if they only way to get rid of them was by getting rid of himself in the process, so be it. Perhaps it’s a sombre note for the film to virtually close with, but a harsh reality of an often fatal illness.

Despite this, no-one can say “The Hours” is a film without optimism- Laura Brown does recover, despite both Virginia’s and Richard’s suicides, and despite, or even perhaps because of the way the other characters were affected by those around them who took their own lives, they carried on with their lives- as Virginia Woolf said “people need to die in order for other’s to appreciate life”. Regardless, for all it’s artistic merit, emotional power and cinematic prowess, “The Hours” is still a sobering reminder of what terror the prospect of oncoming time strikes in the heart of those depressed, those whose life is a constant battle with oneself, those who fear those dreaded hours that gave the film it’s name, with an all-consuming intensity, terror and crushing anxiety many can’t hypothetically fathom, much less contend with.