“The Hours” Welcomed Me Into a Lineage of Sapphic Suffering

In “Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives” we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss. This week is Stephen Daldry’s The Hours.


The first time I watched the film The Hours, I was having a weird day. I’m sure the weirdness felt huge in the moment, even if now I can’t remember what was going on. I could have gotten in a fight with my mother about something as boring as hair or clothes. (It was high school, a time when I often fought with my mother about hair and clothes.) But unfortunately high school doesn’t just pause because a teen is feeling weird. We were going to watch The Hours in English class, because we’d just read Mrs Dalloway, which I was pretending to like more than I actually did because I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and admiring Virginia Woolf seemed like a direct path toward that desire.

In high school, getting to spend an entire class block watching a movie was supposed to be cause for celebration. And yet, I was feeling sad and uninterested, despite the promise of a film starring three actresses I did love without faking it. More than the movie itself, I was interested in the lack of surveillance the day’s lesson plan promised. The lights would be off; our teacher would be at her desk rather than looming over us. A movie provided cover so I could freely pass notes back and forth with my best friend.

By this point, I was an expert at the art of passing notes in class, having been introduced to it a few years prior in middle school. My neighborhood friends Stacy and Remy announced on the bus that they’d gotten in trouble in class for passing notes. This perplexed me. Why would they get in trouble for taking notes, which was what I assumed in my goody-two-shoes way they meant by this “passing” of “notes.” They laughed at me, which they often did, and which I often liked. No, they explained, passing notes. Like writing notes to each other. 

Like letters? I may have asked, always somehow turning something cool into something not.

But now this was high school, and I was a professional in this desk-to-desk epistolary exercise. On the morning of The Hours, I sat behind one of my most frequent note recipients and wrote to her as the movie began, scrawling missives that felt urgent and burning at the time, handing a folded sheet of loose leaf back and forth.

Almost in its entirety, I missed what would later become my favorite sequence from the film, an all-time favorite movie moment, really: a largely dialogueless montage showing the film’s three central women at the start of their day. Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) in 1923, possessed by an opening sentence for her next novel, Mrs Dalloway. Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a pregnant housewife in 1951 beginning to read Mrs Dalloway. And Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) in 2001, a woman who lives with her wife of a decade (Allison Janney) and who’s planning a party for her prize-winning poet friend and whose life runs parallel to that of the Clarissa from Mrs Dalloway, a reimagined modern version of the character dreamed up by Michael Cunningham, the author of the novel on which the movie is based. As the three women begin their day, images repeat or complete one another, establishing that these three stories will be interconnected, echoing each other.

But I missed all that. I was too busy writing letters, under the guise of taking notes about the film.

Much like the original Mrs Dalloway novel, The Hours takes place on one day, only breaking this linear, hour-by-hour form with bookended scenes depicting Woolf’s final minutes. It’s a simple form, and the film employs it deftly, revealing so much about each of these women through how they live just one day while reminding us that we can never know them fully. Even as it jumps between 20th century decades, The Hours is intensely, almost upsettingly linear. A lot like life.

At some point, I became aware I was watching a movie with a gay person in it. Two gay people. Okay, now three, now four, now five, now —.

My first explicitly queer film, though I wouldn’t have had the language to call it that at the time. How had my teacher neglected to mention this? Or had she and I’d just let my mind tune it out? Back then, I was caught between two extremes of either flagrantly ignoring queerness anytime it cropped up or looking way too close at it, like the time I dog-eared every page with the word “gay” when reading famously heterosexual Carrie Fisher’s memoir about alcoholism.

High school audiences are prone to reaction, but I only remember one group response: a chorus of horrified ewwwws when Woolf passionately kisses her sister. It’s another moment from the film I’ll later come to love. But I dread it when watching with others. I fear they won’t understand the scene, and in truth, I don’t either, but that doesn’t matter. My fear is less about the lack of understanding and more about them judging what they do not understand. Every movement of these women isn’t meant to be understood.

I ended the correspondence abruptly with my friend, perhaps to her disappointment. I watched the film, suddenly frustrated I hadn’t already been paying more attention, looking closer. Could it really be that all three of these women were attracted to other women? Clarissa and Laura were fictional, but what about this imagining of  Virginia Woolf? How true to life was this? Had my teacher mentioned that?

I developed a fraught obsession with The Hours after that in-class viewing, a viewing that felt to me as if it’d happened by chance rather than being a deliberate part of a teacher’s lesson plan. It felt as if it had been dropped in my lap. I was prone to obsessing then, especially over certain films, and that usually led to repeat viewings. This was around the same time I saw Inception six times in theaters. There was no way for me to do that with The Hours though, even at home. Netflix technically existed but barely, its library limited. And my goody-two-shoes ways meant pirating the movie was out of the question. My family still had a membership at the last remaining video rental in our area, but I couldn’t imagine walking in and picking up this. What would I say if my parents asked what it was about? I could say it was based on a novel and leave it at that, a novel I was also desperate to get my hands on but also couldn’t imagine bringing home. It would feel too much like a confession, like a spilled secret, someone else’s, not mine, never mine.

For a spell, I forgot about The Hours. Or, if not forgot entirely, locked it away.

I went to college 635 miles from home. My junior year, I became enraptured by Woolf, finally encountering her work at the right time, right place. When working on a paper about Three Guineas, I thought of Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of her, the one that’d won her an Oscar, which I knew was often joked about online, haters saying she merely won an acting award for wearing a prosthetic nose.

But it isn’t a prosthetic that transforms Kidman into unrecognizable territory; it’s the way she orients her entire performance toward sadness, which is different, I think, than orienting a performance toward tragedy. Kidman contorts her body, slumping and slouching as Woolf, conveying an overall feeling of something, someone, who doesn’t fit. She doesn’t fit the expectations foisted upon her: by society, by her husband who loves but doesn’t fully understand her. The fit is all wrong. And this wrongness of fit is echoed in Laura, who struggles with tasks like making a cake, even with a recipe right in front of her. Later in the film, we learn she makes a choice seen by others as cruel: She abandons her children without warning. You have to turn up the volume every time Moore is on screen in the film, her performance quite literally quiet. Clarissa, meanwhile, seems like a thriving member of the early-2000s NYC literary world she exists in, but much like Clarissa Dalloway, there’s turmoil just beneath the surface, a fear of death and unfulfilled desire.

“I seem to be unraveling,” Clarissa says, in a particularly strong scene for Streep. She puts her own psychological unrest in the passive voice because she stays so distanced from it.

Desperate to revisit all three of these performances I only vaguely recalled, I rented a DVD of The Hours from the campus media center. I still wasn’t out, to myself or anyone, though I’d already had sex with women, yes plural. I still said I was straight, often a point of contention with these women, for fair enough reasons. In our basement, my housemates and I watched the film, and one friend was faux-mad at me for showing him something so depressing.

Around the same time, I’d struck up an intense and perhaps codependent friendship laced with homoerotic tension so palpable that even others commented on it casually. They thought it good natured and not mean to poke fun at us given that, according to us both, we were straight, her with a long distance boyfriend to prove it, me hiding under a thick quilt of jokes, deflection, denial.

I’ll call her Max. When both drunk at a recent college newspaper party, we’d practically straddled each other in the darkness of someone’s shitty college house. Now, we were in my shitty college house, in the basement. We’d made plans casually the day before to watch The Hours, so we did. This was my first true viewing, if we’re being honest, even if it was technically the third. The first time, I was distracted by my notes, the second time, too aware of the other people around me. With Max, it felt like a private screening. And I still wasn’t looking closely enough.

The film ended, and we were silent at first. I thought we might talk about it in detail, but we quickly moved along to other things. I wish I could remember what they were exactly, but I know they felt urgent, burning, like those notes passed back and forth. Only now we weren’t behind desks or confined to a classroom, we were in a mildewy basement, on the same couch, sitting so close together our knees almost touched. All the while, the DVD menu played in the background, on a loop. This is the only detail I remember clearly. Not the content of our conversation but its score, those strikingly sad compositions by Phillip Glass thrumming over us.

At some point, our knees did touch.

After coming out, I began narrativizing the night as part of my own queer self-lore, making a humorous bit out of it.

I was so gay when I was straight that one time I sat on a couch with my best friend and spilled my heart to her while the fucking DVD menu for The Hours played on a loop.

Five years later, Max would tell me her own version of that night, mere hours before our first kiss, the one and only night we ever hooked up. In her telling, when our knees touched, I startled. I practically leapt off the couch and told her it was late, that perhaps she should start the walk home in the cold night. When she finally tells me her version, she says she took it as proof I wasn’t interested in women or, at least, not interested in her.

Her telling sounds almost cinematic, overwrought in its depiction of closeted queer discomfort, like I was so afraid of what knees touching could mean, of what it could lead to, that I quite literally jumped away. If told the right way, it’d be a lot funnier than my whole Had a Serious Conversation While the Score From The Hours Played on a Loop in the Background bit.

As soon as she told me her side, so much gayer than I ever realized, I could already feel myself trying to construct it into a joke or something easily packaged. If I were to think about it for too long, I’d have to imagine what might have happened if I hadn’t jumped away, if I’d let our knees linger. And then I would have to admit the profound sadness of the moment, not a setup for a joke at all, but something melancholic. It wasn’t sexy tension that moaned between us on that misshapen couch; it was sadness, spilled over from the film and washing over us.

In the movie, Kitty (Toni Collette) leaves abruptly after Laura kisses her. It’s like she’s running away.

In the novel City of Laughter, author Temim Fruchter writes of an impenetrable, almost inexplicable — at least, not in easy terms — sadness that envelopes its central characters, four generations of women in the same family.

“Sometimes it was a sadness Hannah could touch,” Fruchter writes. “Sometimes it was vast and enveloping as snow. The sadness felt arcane and ancient, calling for reverence and grief all at once. Hannah was always trying to find the balance between the two. She would be in the shower or in a spot of late morning sun or holding a mug of tea or sitting in traffic at four in the afternoon, and suddenly be overcome with it: the feeling that something had shattered, and there she was in the slow, unbearable after-spill. The sadness was unquantifiable. But maybe most important, it was quiet. The family sadness had no sound.”

Sadness does have a sound in The Hours, and it’s a running stream, the one Woolf walks into. When considering following a similar fate, Laura imagines her hotel room flooding with water.

I think of the sadness that links the women in City of Laughter and the sadness that links Clarissa, Laura, and Virginia. They are not themselves part of the same family but rather a linked lineage of queerness, all echoes of each other even as the minutiae of their relationships and lives diverge. But in City of Laughter, the generations of women who pass this sadness onto each other are also all bound by latent, sometimes silenced queer desires.

The women of The Hours are connected by a sadness not easy to summarize. They all confront the limitations of their respective times, Woolf unable to act on her desires and also often misunderstood or punished for her unstable mental health; Laura kept in the closet as a 1960s housewife bound by obligation and expectation to her husband and child while harboring forbidden and perhaps even reciprocated desire for her neighbor; Clarissa with a wife, with a daughter, finally able to live more openly than the women who came before her but still haunted by grief and suffering, acting as caretaker to Richard (Ed Harris), the aforementioned poet, who has AIDS and talks often of dying.

I wasn’t in a good place mentally when I finally read the novel The Hours, two years after sitting on the couch with Max. The bulk of it I read while sitting in a barstool in a restaurant that had become something like a home but a haunted one. A week after I finished it, Michael Cunningham walked into the exact same restaurant and sat a few feet away from me. I never said anything to him, and now I wish I did, but I remember feeling suddenly wine drunk, flushed and aglow. This moment was almost too on-the-nose in its bit of queer magic.  Something about selves collapsing in on one another, the sadness stretching over certain moments like a cellophane wrap, suffocating and difficult to see and still letting some light through.

This anecdote, the passing of notes; it fits, I think. It all does. Notes passed between girls in the dark mean something in the context of a film that features a real-life woman whose queerness is mostly documented only in letters.

In all of this, I’m trying to explain a fact about myself that people in my life either find distressing or humorous: I watch The Hours whenever I’m sad. It took three times to really see it, but now I’ve seen it dozens of times, perhaps more than any other film. Some may like joyful movies about queer people, I suppose, or at least movies that strike various tones and emotional cadences, and aren’t too tragic or doomed. But The Hours isn’t damning or gratuitous in its deep well of sadness, even as it’s sometimes regarded as dreary Oscar bait.

Yes, a woman takes her own life, another considers it, and another watches her friend and former lover, also queer, take his. But its conclusion isn’t all lesbians are sad. It doesn’t make queerness a death sentence. The enveloping sadness, the same one Fruchter writes about so eloquently in City of Laughter, feels more revelatory and propulsive than it does moralistic or limiting. It’s shared, but it’s also specific.

It’s not that I want to immerse myself in the sadness of others — the sadness of fictional(ized) characters — when I’m sad as distraction but rather as a point of connection, a way of tapping into a lineage that includes my past selves.

A year after college and a year before I read The Hours, I revisited Mrs Dalloway. A friend of a friend was launching a now-defunct website for retroactive reviews of novels by women who belong in the great American literary canon but aren’t as celebrated as some of their male peers. She asked me to write about Mrs Dalloway. I was recently out as a lesbian and also fresh off a breakup from my boyfriend, who I stayed with for a few months even after coming out as a lesbian. (Stephen Daldry who directed The Hours is married to a woman, Lucy Sexton, with whom he has children, but he identifies as a gay man. He married in 2001, and The Hours was made that same year, and I think of Daldry’s personal life often when considering the honestly quite complex queerness of each of its characters.)

When I revisited Mrs Dalloway, it re-sparked something in me. After writing the review, I wrote an overlong and overdramatic essay. It was even more confessional than the personal essays I’d started to write and have published on the internet, more like a diary entry but constructed with attention to craft as if I’d one day let someone else read it (I haven’t). I didn’t change anyone’s names, my entire college friend group making appearances that are not entirely flattering to themselves or me. It hinged on my first queer crush experienced after coming out, the first queer crush I could actually name as it was happening. Do I even need to tell you she was straight? I rediscovered the essay while writing this one, horrified to discover the placeholder title I’d left in the Google doc: mrs dalloway but sadder. The essay’s contents aren’t even as sad as the least sad subplot in The Hours or Mrs Dalloway. But I bet I felt wholly otherwise at the time, and who am I to question my past self’s emotional truth?

For a stretch of about a year, I fell asleep while listening to the score from The Hours at a volume that has probably led to subtle but permanent hearing damage. My acute insomnia at the time was rarely quelled by anything I tried: acupuncture, reading instructional manuals in bed, twice weekly therapy, scaling back caffeine, long walks. Glass’s compositions didn’t cure me entirely, but they provided something, a sound for my sadness.

Woolf never spoke nor wrote the words at the end of the film that reverberate back across all three of its timelines so poetically: “Always the years between us. Always the years. Always the love. Always the hours.” Cunningham invented these words for the novel, and they anchor the film, which indeed lives in the hours, in the zoomed-in acute movement of these women’s lives. I’ve spent so many hours with The Hours. My relationships with all three texts — Mrs Dalloway, The Hours the novel, The Hours the film — feel like the women in the movie: interconnected but distinct. Awash with sadness.

As an experiment, I watched the film more recently, while at a happy high point in my life, still blissed out from my recent wedding. We should really own this on DVD, my wife said during that opening montage I’ve come to love so much. I adore her commitment to physical media. It is strange, I admit, that I don’t own a movie that means so much to me. But I always manage to find it, just like it found me. I was pleased to discover, perhaps for the first time, that the film still affects me, still means something to me, even when I’m not sad. It reminds me of the hours when I have been, and that isn’t a bad thing.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 814 articles for us.

5 Comments

  1. I don’t remember how I ended up buying the DVD of The Hours to watch the film. I probably picked it up because I like Julianne Moore.

    But I watched the movie, and was stunned, and rewatched it. And then I immediately rushed to the nearest bookstore to purchase both the novel and Mrs. Dalloway. I read both books, and then rewatched the movie again. I basically spent an entire weekend immersed in the books and movie. I have watched the movie multiple times over the years.

    There was a remarkable opera of The Hours put on last year by the Met. They had Renee Fleming and Joyce DiDonato in the same opera! That will basically never happen again! I was not in NYC – nor, of course, could I afford tickets anyway – but I did get to watch the live simulcast in a movie theater. I keep hoping that they’ll release a DVD of the opera. But so far, only a two-CD set is being released – it can be pre-ordered at the Met Opera website.

    And of course, after I came home from seeing the opera – one of the most transcendent operas I’ve seen in my life – I streamed the movie. The movie was as transcendent as ever.

  2. This was a beautifully written article; your experience of the movie and being drenched in its sadness really resonated with me. The Hours was my first queer film too (or at least, the first film I saw after I realized who I was), and it is also the film I turn to whenever I’m feeling sad. When I first saw the scene where Julianne Moore kisses Toni Collette’s character and that look of realization dawns in her face, I burst into tears. It’s like I was seeing myself. There was a time in my life when I listened to its score almost every day. In an article of a dozen incredible lines, this one jumped out:

    “Even as it jumps between 20th century decades, The Hours is intensely, almost upsettingly linear. A lot like life.”

    This is something I have noticed on my more recent rewatches too. The writing and editing are so good, each scene feels like a continuation of the previous scene, even if it might be happening eighty years in the future on a different continent.

    All this rambling to say: thank you for this article about one of my all-time favorite pieces of art; I am glad to learn that this holds such a special place in your heart too.

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