If These Walls Could Talk: the Fraught Interiors of The Hours
“The thresholds between the interiors and exteriors in The Hours tremble with hesitation and meaning. Every character in the film passes from interior to interior in a claustrophobic architectural labyrinth. The influence of Virginia Woolf’s distinct literary ability to bring people, objects, streets, and entire worlds nearer and nearer for the reader’s inspection, is seen and viscerally felt in the detailed and textured interior sets of The Hours. The walls are all vividly and cinematically described and as the film progresses, get increasingly too close for comfort.”
The 2002 Stephen Daldry film, The Hours, is a study of interiors and interiorities. Even seen with the volume turned off, the film’s sets, stylized to portray three different eras and locations, speak clearly of the anxieties that linger in the spaces occupied by the film’s three intertwined heroines. From floral wallpaper to actual flowers, textile patterns to brick walls, the visual leitmotifs of The Hours create domestic environments that contract inwards. In translating the film from Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the interior monologues of the three main characters have been expressed outwardly by the architectural details of the inner sanctum each character inhabits.
The Hours connects the lives of three women with a piece of literature: Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Nicole Kidman plays Woolf, who is writing Mrs. Dalloway in 1923 England. Laura Brown, a Los Angeles housewife and mother, played by Julianne Moore, is reading Mrs. Dalloway in 1951. And finally, Clarissa Vaughan, a society woman and literary editor, played by Meryl Streep, is living the 2001 version of Mrs. Dalloway in New York City. The film flashes between a single day in the life of each woman, visually linking them through repetitive actor, prop, and camera positions. The challenge for production designer Maria Djurkovic and set decorator Philippa Hart was to create three distinct environments that could both stand alone as representative spaces for the characters’ identities, and to visually connect them through the film’s narrative structure. What results are stylistically and historically varied rooms, subtly knit by visual quotations and variations on the theme of domestic space as decorated tomb.
Nicole Kidman’s Woolf is restricted by the finely detailed and ornate fuss of Victorian home furnishings and ideologies. Banished from the vibrancy of London urban life to the “suffocating anesthetic of the suburbs” of Richmond, England, Woolf is enclosed by the prim English gardens and brick walls that stand darkly at the perimeter of the Gothic Hogarth House. Indoors, the hallways and first floor are painted a dark soil brown, making Woolf appear already underground, gasping for air. Two columns of the same burnt chocolate greet the viewer at the top of the forest-green carpeted staircase. The presence of these usually external architectural elements makes the dark, cavernous interior feel even smaller. Secluded within an anxious stasis of pale teal painted walls, Woolf, encased in dense, floral-print, floor-length dresses, labors on her novel, with her view of outside obscured and entangled in the cream macramé curtains. Kidman’s character makes three attempts to pass the charged threshold between interior and exterior. First, on a walk to determine the fate of her novel’s protagonist, all the while carrying her internal thoughts outside. Next, Woolf darts out on a last-resort escape to board a London-bound train, only to be stopped by her husband at the train platform. The platform is filmed head-on; flattening the three-dimensions and framing Kidman and Stephen Dillane’s Leonard Woolf, like actors on a theatrical stage with only a backdrop of a real station behind them. Her third and final rift with the enclosing interior occurs as she walks into the river Ouse with a heavy stone in her coat pocket (an external element placed in the interior of a garment) and drowns herself, entering the eternal interior.
Woolf begins Mrs. Dalloway with the famous line “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Flowers feature prominently as cloying harbingers of death throughout the film. The floral print of Woolf’s dresses morph into the outsized palm fronds seen in Laura Brown’s dark green wallpaper, which renders the interior of the sunny yellow-ochre post-war tract house morbidly dark. As Brown reads Mrs. Dalloway, in the Feminine Mystique-era agony of her bedroom, wallpapered with decapitated white roses on a chestnut brown textured field, she too contemplates suicide as an escape from the deafening silence of her home and life. Her young son, later revealed as Clarissa Vaughn’s AIDS-stricken friend in 2001, silently watches his depressed mother stand in doorways and in front of curtained picture windows, halted and unable to trespass the precipices that house her misery. The son’s room is wallpapered with a cowboys and Indians theme; his flannel bed sheets are an ultramarine blue covered in spaceships and rockets; and he sleeps with a ceramic A-frame house piggy bank on his bedside table—all expressing his desire for mobility and future plans for a less cloistered interior life. Laura moves from room to room, finding a momentary solace in imagining the flour her son is sifting, as they bake a cake together, to be snow. As she makes the decision to leave the house, we see a moving truck’s contents of living room furniture spilled onto the street, once again bringing the interior outside and conflating the two. Choosing to escape to yet another, smaller interior, Brown checks into a hotel styled like an Italian villa painted the same ochre as her home. The room itself is a condensed amalgam of the multiple rooms (living room, bedroom, hallways, etc) of a home, further limiting her options of mobility. Here she continues to read Mrs. Dalloway and imagines her own possible suicide in a striking cinematic scene, where she is shown engulfed in the same river water that took Virginia Woolf a decade earlier.
In the modern-day version of Mrs. Dalloway, the floral wallpaper turns into the real cut flowers that spill into every room in which Streep’s Clarrisa Vaughan dwells. Her Greenwich Village brownstone is a site of imprisonment, with its vertically striped curtains and penetrating cold, grey-blue winter light. The white Virginia Woolf bust that stands on the vanity table in her bedroom acts as three-dimensional cameo, and omen of the connectivity that fatefully ties the film’s protagonists and their interiors together. Vaughan’s protection of her interiority is expressed in the layers of clothing she wears and never peels off throughout the film. Turtlenecks, scarves, heavy amber necklaces, scores of silver bracelets (that look more like shackles,) sunglasses, and suede coats drape her. Even indoors, much camera time is given to the teal rubber gloves that cloak her hands, as she busies herself in the kitchen. Vaughn’s apartment is also a sometime-reprieve from her constant and taxing visits to Richard Brown (Laura Brown’s adult and ill son played by Ed Harris) to care for him and fill his triangle-shaped apartment with flowers, attempting to bring symbols of life and the outside world, but unknowingly laying flowers in a living casket. His apartment, with its white painted brick walls and haphazard bookshelves appears to be a temporary space, somewhere between an inner dwelling and the freezing outside air. It is at the narrow end of his apartment, where our sight is directed by the sheer force of perspective, that he breaches the edge of the interior and throws himself out the window in the film’s final suicide. Richard’s flannel spaceship-themed robe, made from the same fabric as his childhood bedclothes, serves as the only covering for his frail body and this lack of clothing offers a contrast to Clarissa’s layered wardrobe. His apartment’s furnishings are what give the clearest hint to what ties Clarissa Vaughan’s era to Laura Brown’s period in the film. The curtains pinned crookedly to the window frames are the same brown patterned curtains that hung in his childhood kitchen window. The red, black and white upholstery on his sofa is the same patterned fabric that covered the hotel bed where his mother considered ending her life but instead decided to abandon her family and begin her life anew. These visual cues of textile pattern and memory turned clothing and emotional armor underline the film’s focus on the characters’ pain and desperation and the way in which it comes to fill the inner spaces they inhabit.
The thresholds between the interiors and exteriors in The Hours tremble with hesitation and meaning. Every character in the film passes from interior to interior in a claustrophobic architectural labyrinth. The influence of Virginia Woolf’s distinct literary ability to bring people, objects, streets, and entire worlds nearer and nearer for the reader’s inspection, is seen and viscerally felt in the detailed and textured interior sets of The Hours. The walls are all vividly and cinematically described and as the film progresses, get increasingly too close for comfort.