The Hours

It’s About Time — The Hours

If you’ll pardon the nose metaphor, sometimes you can just smell a winner. And THE HOURS (2002) is definitely a winner. Based on Michael Cunningham’s poetic, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film tells the stories of three women linked through time to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, a novel about “a woman’s entire life in a single day.” Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman is unrecognizable as Woolf, whose madness and life provide the thread of the film. Julianne Moore is heartbreaking as a 1950s housewife who would rather leave her “happy” home life than suffer through the tedium of everyday life. Meryl Streep is Clarissa Vaughn, a contemporary woman caring for a poet (Ed Harris) dying of AIDS.

At the time, the film was foolishly marketed as “literary” and “important,” two words that spell death at the box office.  So audiences missed out on a truly emotional film with three superb performances in the leads and a supporting cast that was every bit as strong. Cunningham’s book was considered unfilmable but Stephen Daldry’s sensitive direction brings the three stories together into a seamless whole. And Philip Glass’s haunting, minimalist score had to be, in his own words, “the thread that tied the movie together.”

Glass pointed out that the music “had to convey the structure of the film.” To do so, he composed the same music to go through all three periods, choosing the piano because “it’s an instrument that’s very personal and could cross periods easily.” He combined the piano with a large string orchestra to give it “density and weight of sound.”

The Hours soundtrack
“Dead Things”

Because Glass’ music throughout is variations on the various themes stated at the beginning of the film, it is difficult to pick separate moments. But I found the mournful piano to be particularly effective as Virginia (Kidman) lies on the ground next to the impromptu grave of a dead bird. And the agitated strings and piano arpeggios musicalize every child’s nightmare as Richie (Jack Rovello) screams after the retreating rear bumper of his mother’s (Moore) car as she leaves him to commit suicide.

As usual, critics (and film music fans) were divided over Glass’ music. While some publications like the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times praised the score, the Village Voice couldn’t get past the “stampeding arpeggios” and Variety found the score “often intrusive and too prominent in the overall scheme.” Richard Schickel in Time magazine summed up the music as “tuneless, oppressive, droning, painfully self-important.”

Glass has been certainly been accused of all of the above in his career, and on occasion, I would even agree. But not here. THE HOURS is a score I’ve returned to time and time again over the years and it never fails to move me. The music is so essential to the mood and emotional fabric of the film that I can’t imagine anyone else’s music in its place.

  1. This is the score that completely turned me around to Glass. I used to cringe when I heard his music prior but this one won me over. Perhaps it was right at a creative flux in my life because that score and screenplay have really influenced everything creative I have done since.

    1. My turnaround was KUNDUN. But THE HOURS was something special. I was completely unprepared for how haunting it was. I was addicted to the music before I even saw the film.

  2. I considered staying out of this conversation, but temptation got the better of me. I’m with the snottiest of critics when it comes to Philip Glass soundtrack muzak: here’s a guy that almost literally writes the same score for every assignment he gets.

    1. Gary, I certainly don’t think you’re alone in your opinion. But there have been the same issues with the music of Steiner, Herrmann, Williams and many others as well. I think any time a composer hits on a recognizable style, a case could be made that it’s the same score over and over again. Certainly, the more we listen to various composers, the more we can hear certain chord progressions, motifs and even thematic ideas that become signatures of their style.

      Comparing KUNDUN to THE HOURS or THE ILLUSIONIST, you can easily tell it’s the same composer. But I’d say they are definitely different scores in tone and even style. I think it comes down to whether or not a person is a fan of Glass’ music (or any other composer). I’m certainly not always a fan, but I can appreciate certain scores. There are plenty I don’t care for as well. There are plenty more composers out there for us not to waste our energies on those we don’t care for, eh? LOL

  3. An inevitable, unbearable sense of tragedy permeates this score. Just watching these two remarkable scenes reminded me why I so moved by this film and Glass’s work here. I’m with you on this Jim it’s hard for me to imagine anyone doing it as well.

    My first encounter with Glass was Koyaanisqatsi.

    I’ve never quite recovered from that music/cinematic tour deforce.

    1. My first exposure was KOYAANISQATSI as well. While Glass’ music was perfect for those images, I really think he succeeded in more dramatic fare, like KUNDUN and THE HOURS. Certainly not all of his film music is stellar (whose is?), but those two particularly show what he can do with the right material. I just wish he was given more opportunities like these.

  4. this was a great year for scores. i was also rooting for this and Far From Heaven to win the Oscar. Morning Passages is just a quietly haunting track. Other Philip Glass I like is his creepy score to Candyman.

    1. It WAS a great year for scores! And for a change the Academy didn’t muck it up with some lesser effort. Each of the five deserved to be there.

  5. “The Hours” is, quite simply, a stunningly good movie. The development of the 3 interconnected stories is handled beautifully. The cast is phenomenal, and provide one of the richest sets of performances in a single film that I have seen in 20 years.

    The last half hour or so of this film is simply exquisite as the various artful elements of this production combine to produce a primary example of why motion pictures can be the most powerful medium. Writing, performance, art direction & score. Oh, the score!

    But it is the richness of this story that appeals–I will watch this movie from time to time–not frequently but regularly. And it is always a wonderful experience, with an additional revelation, emotion or thought to be discovered.

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