VIRGINIA WOOLF WOULD HAVE HATED IT

The next post will be on or before Sunday 25th March. If you want to read my comic novel about online dating, The Lawless Book of Love, you need to look at the January and February 2018 archive, see below to the right

VIRGINIA WOOLF WOULD HAVE HATED IT

Angelic small American boy: I love you, Mommy.

His beautiful young mother: I love you too, honey!

Guess where those two choice and highly original lines come from? The charming old TV series, The Waltons as extolled by George Bush Sr when peevishly excoriating the unAmerican and subversive The Simpsons? The Sixties US kids’ comedy series Just Dennis about the pesky little boy who has a heart of gold and longsuffering if doting parents to match? No, on the contrary they were penned by the celebrated customarily radical UK dramatist Sir David Hare (born 1947), for a fancy and ambitious arthouse movie called The Hours (2002) directed by the Englishman Stephen Daldry (born 1960) who made the 2000 Billy Elliot and the 2016 The Crown. Add to that, that this is a film full to the gills with bankable superstars all of whom sad to say, apart from Nicole Kidman and Stephen Dillane, are flailing about trying to animate what stolidly refuses to be animated. I came to it 16 years after its release, and as it had received a great deal of critical acclaim was prepared for a considerable treat. I arrived admittedly with a good quantity of ignorance, as I didn’t even know it was adapted from a novel by US writer Michael Cunningham(born 1952) which fetes 3 separate narratives, a single day in 1923, 1951 and 2001 respectively, where the characters are all somehow linked to Virginia Woolf’s poignant fictional masterpiece, Mrs Dalloway. Unlike most portmanteau films, only two of the characters straddle more than one narrative, the child and mother above, and as they are two of the weakest creations in the whole ensemble, the film overall was always going to struggle.

Laura Brown played by the gifted Julianne Moore (born 1960) who alongside Ralph Fiennes excelled in the 1999 The End of the Affair is pregnant with her second child and is stuck at home in suffocating 50s LA suburbia with her small boy Richard/ Richie. She is married to decent and tenderly affectionate Dan, a WW2 veteran played ably by John C Reilly (born 1965) who alas is seriously miscast as we are much more used to him playing the uproarious idiot in comic films. Today is Dan’s birthday and given that Laura plans to commit suicide on that anniversary and his unborn child will die as a result, it might have made more sense to cast someone not normally playing the clown. The other overriding problem is that Laura’s suicidal depression is simply stated as a fact, not evoked, and there is nil nuanced evocation of why she is so terminally distressed. Moore does her best just as everyone in this film does their best against the odds, but the thematic pointers are way too loaded and facile. Laura is a fan of a novel whose central character Clarissa Dalloway also mused on death and ending it all, and the book is there on the table when her pretentious neighbour Kitty played by Australian Toni Collette (born 1972) turns up to ask a favour. She picks up the highbrow work uncomprehending, and then drops her suburban smugness and says she is having an operation very likely to confirm her chronic infertility. Above all she wants to have a child, and Laura meanwhile is planning to kill both herself and the foetus inside her, so the symbolism is both overt and top-heavy. As a kind of all-purpose fudge to this, as Kitty breaks down, Laura kisses her full and lingeringly on the lips, as if to hint at a thwarted sexual orientation, though that possibility is explored no further. Once Kitty has gone, she leaves Richie with a neighbour and drives off to a hotel where she plans to take an overdose. As her car departs, Richie played by handsome little Jack Rovello starts kicking the restraining neighbour and shrieking his distress at his abandonment. Jack is definitely the best child actor in the film, but he still doesn’t convince, if only because he is taking his cues from Julianne Moore who really doesn’t know what she is doing with the unfinished and unextrapolated lines they have given her. Meanwhile on the hotel bed she gets out her copy of Mrs Dalloway but before she can take the overdose falls asleep only to have a horrible nightmare of the bedroom being flooded (cue the real Virginia Woolf who drowned herself in a river in 1941). Somehow this wakens Laura up from her depressive stupor, she decides against suicide and returns to pick up Richie (which is where the ‘I love you Mommy’ lines come in) though ultimately she abandons her family to take up a job as a librarian in Canada.

Fast forward 50 years to 2001 and Richie living in NY has become a celebrated novelist and poet who is bisexual and is dying of AIDS. Richie is played with haggard and emaciated conviction by Ed Harris (born 1950) notable for his dour and unfoolable role in David Mamet’s 1992 Glengarry, Glen Ross. The problem is though, that his inadequate emotional foil is a former bisexual partner Clarissa Vaughan portrayed unconvincingly by the I would argue overlauded Meryl Streep (born 1949) who over the years Richie has inevitably playfully addressed as Mrs Dalloway. Just as in the novel, the NY Clarissa is throwing a huge party and is buying colossal quantities of flowers for it. The party is to celebrate Richie winning a coveted poetry award, but weak and battered Richie is not delighted by the belated recognition as he thinks they are only giving him it because he is dying. Clarissa who spends a lot of time caring for and helping her ex is dismayed by such pessimism and later breaks down when Louis Waters, a previous gay partner of Richie’s played by the always genial Jeff Daniels (born 1955) turns up at her house. They swap notes on Richie’s notorious highbrow novel, a tough and demanding read which they both agree clearly portrays Clarissa, and both dilate gauchely about its obscurity and unreadability and Louis pertly exclaims, ‘But nothing happens in it!’. The point I am getting at is that Richie’s terminally ill pessimism is met with the whimsical Sunday supplement foil of two literati twittering and cooing about the great man’s oh so endearing and ineffable highbrow inaccessibility. At this point it would be wise for Stephen Daldry and his cinematic future, to go away and study 2 portmanteau films of real by which I mean towering virtuosity, namely 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006) by the Mexican Alejandro Inarritu (born 1963). The Hours is supposed to be saturated with subtle evocation of death and grief and mortality, but at times it has echoes of a Hampstead/ Manhattan dinner party and the kind of milieu where the London aka New York Review of Books is always prominent on the kitchen table. By contrast Inarritu in Babel has Brad Pitt watching his wife Cate Blanchett apparently bleeding to death on a Moroccan country bus after an ignorant young shepherd boy accidentally shoots her, and later the boy’s father going mad with grief when the brutal Moroccan policeman guns down his son without making any effort to arrest him. Meanwhile in this final showdown between unappeasable Richie and beseeching Clarissa, Richie opens his nth floor window and sits himself on the ledge before plummeting to his death in order to end the charade of his life and the charade of the coveted prize. Just before that, and I have seen B movies do it better, he has a flashback to the traumatic time 50 years ago when he kicked the neighbour and begged his Mommy not to drive away and abandon him. That loaded juxtaposition really needed to be expertly and seamlessly crafted, and you would wonder what on earth was going through Hare’s and Daldry’s heads when they decided to let it go and then crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

You would also wonder what led them to make the disastrous executive decision to have 3 badly coached child actors in the kernel 1923 narrative concerning the author of Mrs Dalloway. Virginia Woolf played with twitchy neurotic brilliance by the massively gifted Nicole Kidman (born 1967) has been dragged from London to rustic Richmond by husband Leonard, portrayed with infinitely touching subtlety by Stephen Dillane (born 1957). There he sets up the Hogarth Press to print worthy authors including Virginia, and also to distract his wife from her occasional psychotic episodes, for she not only has suicidal depression, she also hears voices. Today in longhand and with a pen, she embarks on her new book Mrs Dalloway and she talks to herself with a kind of steely toughness wonderfully counterpointed by ironic, cerebral, pipesmoking, but always sensitive Leonard who is keeping a vigilant eye on her. Later when she hooks it for the train station to make an unannounced trip to London, Dillane portrays Leonard’s acute distress with understated tearful desolation and here is one of the few times in the film where you see a real and convincing character with real convincing emotions as opposed to ones spuriously tacked on in a fit of wishful thinking crossed with an A level approach to postmodernism. Ditto when Virginia bawls at him on the station how somnolent Richmond drives her mad and bustling London keeps her sane after a fashion, Nicole Kidman puts everything she’s got into that thwarted fury and harrowing desperation that will eventually end her troubled life.

But as I said, the child actors effectively ruin this very promising Richmond narrative. Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell, wife of Clive and a central figure of the ostentatious Bloomsbury set, comes to visit with her three children, two hulking boys and an angelic little daughter. Veteran Miranda Richardson (born 1958) is cast as Vanessa and she always gives good value, as when she gets very upset confronting her sister about whether she is obeying the nerve doctors or not. The costume designers get her sons’ clothes impeccably right (they always do, don’t they?) but the voice coach definitely doesn’t do their job because these lads don’t sound like posh 1923 schoolboys, they sound like the 2001 variant at some smart London independent school, and the only thing missing is the mobile phone in their back pockets. Ditto the lovely little girl who goes and sits on disturbed Aunty Virginia’s knee and addresses her in lisping Walt Disney tones UK style, so that the pathos, the emotional registers and everything else get depressingly mangled and tangled. Apropos which and despite all the autopilot plaudits, Stephen Daldry deserves to be put in detention for that lack of artistic forethought, and I for one won’t be seeking out Billy Elliot which I have not yet seen, in any hurry.

POSTSCRIPT

If you want to see a really excellent film about Mrs Dalloway then get hold of Marleen Gorris’s 1997 eponymous masterpiece with Vanessa Redgrave (born 1937) superb in the lead and Michael Kitchen(born 1948) outstanding as Peter the man who always loved her, but was passed over for a lukewarm competitor. I have watched it about 10 times and could happily watch it another 10 at least.

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