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.”
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.