The Hours and The Pianist

The book is almost always better than the film. Even the rare, successful, faithful adaptations (The Lord of The Rings, Election) lose something in translation. They get all the characters and plot points correct, and in a few cases, add something unforeseen but enriching to the original material. But, they often fail to express what one can only find in the author’s language and style.

When I first heard that Miramax was adapting The Hours, Michael Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, I felt elation (because it’s one of my favorites) and dread (because they could easily make a travesty of it). In deceptively simple but eloquent language, the book tells intertwining tales of one day in the life of three women. The first, set in contemporary (but pre 9-11) New York, is about Clarissa Vaughn, a middle-aged publisher about to throw a party for her longtime friend Richard, a poet suffering the worst stages of AIDS. The second, set in early 1950s Los Angeles, is about Laura Brown, a pregnant suburban housewife who attempts to make a birthday cake for her husband with her young son. The third, set in England, 1923, is about an actual historical figure, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman). Seeking in vain for solace in a small town, she sets upon writing what will be one of her greatest novels, Mrs. Dalloway.

The beauty of the book is not only in how the three tales eventually come together, but also in all the running motifs and echoes that each tale contains. Cunningham reveals these echoes so subtly and gracefully, that many of them are difficult to pick up on the first reading. As they are gradually revealed and discovered, the effect is often moving and rapturous. But how can one possibly capture the essence of an author’s carefully chosen words on screen? Director Stephen Daldry boldly tries, and although he stays true to Cunningham’s story and characters, the magic seems a little diluted. The echoes seem more obvious than not (especially if you’ve read the book), and some passages of the book that were remarkable for their understated nature seem dreary, heightened and nearly overwrought.

Fortunately, viewed apart from the book, The Hours is in itself a fine, thoughtful film, and unlike Daldry’s first feature, Billy Elliot, it never runs out of steam or risks implausibility. The three leading ladies—Meryl Streep as Clarissa, Julianne Moore as Laura, and Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, are all outstanding. Streep steps into the central role of Clarissa with ease and expertise; it’s difficult to imagine any other actress successfully embodying such a conflicted, compelling figure. At first, Moore seems a little too old for her part, as does John C. Reilly as her World War II vet husband. But she’s nearly as good here as she was in Far From Heaven, playing another 1950s suburban matron, albeit one much more aware and haunted by her environment and sense of self. Nearly unrecognizable as Woolf, Kidman has never seemed more real nor more tragic, less a movie star than she’s ever been, but a creation/re-enactment nearly worthy of Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi from Ed Wood.

The supporting actors fare less consistently. Toni Collette is effortlessly marvelous as Laura’s neighbor Kitty, and Alison Janney, all-too-briefly, leaves a firm impression as Clarissa's partner Sally. But Ed Harris is miscast as Richard (too gruff and overdone) and Claire Danes almost phones in her role as Clarissa’s daughter. The Hours is less personal than one would like; it reeks of calculated prestige and developed-for-Oscar-consideration drama and sentimentality. But, it’s far from embarrassing (which can’t be said of last year’s bombed attempt by Miramax to formulate an Oscar-winning literary adaptation—The Shipping News). Its success, however sporadic, lies in the fact that many viewers in the theater still gasped in awe when the mysterious, wonderfully executed link between Clarissa and Laura’s stories was eventually revealed.

The Pianist has been winning awards up the wazoo for Best Picture, from Cannes to the National Society of Film Critics. Roman Polanski’s film is based on the memoirs of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a talented Jewish pianist in Warsaw who astonishingly managed to avoid being sent to a concentration camp with the rest of his family and survived the decimation of the Warsaw ghetto. As Szpilman, Adrien Brody gives one of those bravura, physically altering performances that often seem overrated for their flashiness and displays of great ACTING! But Brody deserves all of his praise and acclaim. He’s been a stunning, shrewd actor in every film he’s appeared in, and if he lacks Daniel Day-Lewis’ versatility, he also thankfully lacks that actor’s occasionally off-putting, larger-than-life demeanor (see Gangs of New York; wait, don't see it.)

The film is being touted as Polanski’s best in years. It’s not quite a masterwork on the order of Rosemary’s Baby or Chinatown, but it does have all the tension and startling twists of those two films, if none of the indelibly dark humor (which would seem a little inappropriate for a film about the holocaust.) As a man who himself survived and escaped the Warsaw ghetto as a child, Polanski is obviously an ideal director for this story. Arguably, no other filmmaker (especially Speilberg) could so convincingly convey the same sense of terror, paranoia and grim despair which accompanies the film’s superior second half, charting Szpilman’s attempt to survive a tragically crumbling world in painstaking, distressing detail.

Sitting through the film is a bit of an endurance test; not nearly on the scale of Szpilman’s, of course, but enough that the abrupt, truncated happy ending seems like a cheat in comparison more than a relief. What of Szpilman’s post-War life, apart from his career as a brilliant musician? What of the demons he must have lived with for 55 years? At least he is not made into a hero, but portrayed as an average (if extraordinarily musically gifted) man who just manages to survive, and find salvation from the unlikeliest source. As a holocaust film, it easily towers over tripe like the awful, overrated Life Is Beautiful, taking the unsentimental high road. And for all its minor faults, The Pianist is often riveting, and unforgettably relentless in its depiction of absolute horror.