The Hours’s Queer Chronologies

The Hours (2002) | Paramount Pictures

When I was 14, I regularly sifted through Netflix’s “Gay/Lesbian” section for illuminating queer cinema. Predictably, this wasn’t usually a successful endeavor, but I was able to find a few films that helped shape my taste and my understanding of queerness—I Killed My Mother, Far From Heaven, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. The film with the most pressing, immediate emotional impact on me, though, was Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, the 2001 adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel led by Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Oscar-winning Nicole Kidman. I’m not sure The Hours was the quote-unquote “best” film I saw at this point in my life, but it burrowed into my psyche and hasn’t emerged in the intervening years. 

The Hours is a time-jumping riff on Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway. Like Woolf’s novel, the film depicts the psychological torrents a person can ride over the course of a single, seemingly average day. The Hours’ own formal gambit is that it follows the tiny, momentous days of three women at different points in time, separated by years yet inextricably linked: Virginia Woolf in 1923, housewife Laura Brown in 1951, and book editor Clarissa Vaughan in 2001. Virginia plots her modernist masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway, Laura reads it for inspiration to radically change her life, and Clarissa—nicknamed “Mrs. Dalloway” by her ill best friend—plans a party just as the novel’s protagonist did. The film shifts perspective frequently and fluidly, with spliced scenes and montages emphasizing the material and internal commonalities between the women. Like Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, the consummate hostess who questions her past decisions, all of them are externally “successful” individuals stuck in constraining circumstances: Virginia is trapped in a sleepy suburb she hates so she can ostensibly improve her mental health, Laura is restricted to the social roles of “wife” and “mother” that she doesn’t know how to fulfill, and Clarissa has a successful career and a stable relationship but wants the spontaneous passions of her youth. Looming in the background of their lives are unacknowledged desires and the expectation of death. Over the course of the film, we see these inevitabilities of life come to the surface with searing, intermittent clarity.

I don’t remember what context I had when I watched the movie for the first time, but it was probably just a thumbnail and a brief plot description. What I saw, then, surprised and shook me. The film’s deep engagement with existential questions, its bending, elliding, and collapsing of linear time, and its earnest emotionality combined to create an invigorating experience. The questions the film raises about the nature of time, about the imperative to find pockets of meaning in the chaos of life, spoke to broad existential questions that were arising in my adolescent brain. The final axiom the film offers, a fictionalized statement from Virginia—“At last to know it, to love it for what it is, and then, to put it away”—was simple yet complex enough to strike me as an essential philosophy. 

I was also compelled by how the film navigated queerness: instead of falling under obvious binary categories, its characters slipped into moments of queer sexuality without pronouncement. Queerness in The Hours stems from currents of desire which alter the characters’ relationships to the lives they’ve chosen. The most evident strain of queerness in the film is a pattern of spontaneous kisses between women (and once between a lesbian and a gay man), unplanned and unacknowledged after the fact, but altering internal conceptions of the self and social roles. At 14, I was settling into a knowledge of my own queerness and picking up tools from mass culture to understand how I could integrate my private desires into a social identity. The Hours suggested to me that queerness could be fluid, mysterious, neither hidden nor announced. The film’s lack of didacticism and its focus on idiosyncratic experience held a distinct, quiet power in my mind; it went against the grain of what I imagined queer identity could be but also struck me as honest and pleasurable. 

Ten years have passed. I hadn’t watched The Hours again until very recently. I held it in my mind as a formative text, yet knew that once I watched it again, my relationship to it would change. The film was formative for me because it provided a direct emotional line when I was just beginning to examine my own identity and my place in the world. Early adolescence, which brought me an intense search for identity and titanic emotional responses to minor events, turned out to be an oddly suitable time to watch a film about the foundations of your life shifting rapidly under your feet, even as the external circumstances of your life continued unabated. I wasn’t sure whether watching the film as an adult would enhance the film for me, revealing new aesthetic craft and thematic depth that I couldn’t fully understand at the time, or cheapen it, revealing it to be an unsubtle, pretentious work that could only speak to me at a certain point in my life. 

My experience was somewhere in the middle. The film has been described as a classic example of Oscar bait, dangling “transformative” performances by movie stars and surface-level intellect for the sole benefit of Academy members, and I understand this criticism a bit better now. Screenwriter David Hare tends to broadcast subtext through unmissable lines of dialogue—characters note that they’ve “fallen out of time,” moments of private, discursive inner monologue from Cunningham’s novel become clear statements—and certain performances feel misdirected and out-of-step with the roiling internality that Streep, Kidman, and Moore imbue their characters with. It didn’t reach my conscious attention as a teenager, but Ed Harris’s and Jeff Daniels’s portrayals of gay men (Clarissa’s best friend and his ex-boyfriend) are defined by easily legible mannerisms and tics that occlude their characters’ depth and contradictions. Harris, whose character is living with AIDS, also affects a pronounced limp, creating a performance of stereotypical gay suffering without giving equal weight to his characters’ pronounced (if fading) intellect and complex inner life. 

If occasionally ponderous dialogue and a couple off-kilter performances kept me at a certain critical distance from The Hours, its narrative intricacies intrigued me. Crucially, I was newly struck by how the film subtly threads in the idea that queerness isolates the three women from their contemporaries, yet draws them together across time. I understood the film’s fluid approach to time and its fluid approach to queerness as two separate components on my first viewing. Watching it again, I understood that the film’s nontraditional temporality and its inclusion of queer narratives are inseparable, because the film’s entire approach to temporality is colored by queerness.

In an article for Narrative that argues that both Mrs. Dalloway and Cunningham’s novel have queer relationships to time, Kate Haffey describes the repeated, sudden kisses from the novel, which also feature in the film: “…these moments represent a particular and perhaps peculiar relation to futurity. They represent times in the characters’ lives when the future was unknowable, when they stepped outside the normal narratives of their lives and into a space of the unknown.” The context and framing of these kisses shifted in adaptation from novel to film, so Haffey’s close readings of the individual scenes don’t entirely apply, but her argument rings true to the cinematic depictions of unanticipated intimacy. Each of them act as hinges in the character’s trajectories, reverberating beyond the present, and suggest the close connection between queer intimacies and time’s elasticity. 

The first kiss is between Clarissa and Richard, an affectionate repeat of a kiss they shared during a youthful affair. The second is between Laura and her friend Kitty (Toni Collette), who has just disclosed that she needs to be hospitalized for a growth on her uterus. The third is between Virginia and her sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson), who Virginia kisses strongly and passionately at the end of a visit. Each disrupts the pacing and tone of the scene it’s in—the axis the characters spin on tilts unaccountably. 

The one that lingered in my mind the most after my first watch, and captivated me equally on my second, is between Laura and Kitty. Kitty enters with a poise and confidence that the shaky Laura doesn’t possess and condescendingly criticizes a cake Laura baked for her husband’s birthday. As Kitty’s small talk runs out, Laura notices that Kitty seems uneasy and asks if something is wrong. Collette performs her disclosure of potential illness with laughs and assurances that she’ll be fine, while letting her mask gradually slip to reveal agony and fear. Laura, who Moore plays with perpetual emotional transparency, walks over to hold her for comfort. The energy between the two shifts as Kitty lays her head on Laura’s breast and Laura kisses her forehead. Kitty relaxes and angles her face toward Laura, who leans down to kiss her on the lips. The camera shifts angles throughout this sequence—a high-angle close-up of Collette from Laura’s perspective, and a tight close-up that shows both their faces in profile. Kitty composes herself and leaves after the kiss, social persona reassembled, but Laura can’t shake the kiss’s tender sensuality (“you didn’t mind?” she asks Kitty, who replies “mind what?”). 

Straight time relies on adherence to a set of norms that shouldn’t be disrupted. Both characters enter the scene in the midst of disruption. Laura has woken up later than her family and struggles to fill the day with her son, while Kitty grapples with the understanding that she may never have children, which she views as an impediment to truly becoming a woman, and may die young. Both are then opened up for what Haffey, citing queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, calls a “queer moment”: a moment that continues or repeats beyond its slot in linear time. Daldry slows the pacing of the scene and luxuriates in the kiss, indicating a stretching of time, and Laura’s hazy inability to assimilate herself back into the motions of the day shows how the kiss has jarred her already-tenuous relationship to normative temporality. 

The other “kiss scenes” also bend time. Clarissa’s kiss with Richard draws her back into the past; when she returns to her apartment, her partner Sally (Allison Janney) finds her sitting silently, dazed, barely responsive. Virginia, who Daldry and Hare depict as having a racing mind out-of-step with the staid social conventions she’s expected to respect, dashes to the train station to go to London after kissing Vanessa. The kiss compels her to return to the past life she led in London, yet also to accelerate past the constraints of her current life. Hallet describes each instance of “the kiss” as “a moment of pleasure and elation, of possibility, of stepping outside daily routines and conventional narratives as well as a statement about the power of such moments despite their minimal effects on the plot.” This is what Hallett notes is queer about these scenes in the novel, and what is queer to me about the film as well—further than just incorporating explicit moments of gay desire, The Hours implicitly shows that time is a structure that can be queered, even by small steps outside of the normal events of a day. 

The lack of linear temporality, or even narrative coherence—in film or in life—can be disorienting and confusing. There can be pleasure and satisfaction in following a predetermined script;the plotting of a future through a defined series of milestones at least gives the facade of certainty to an uncertain existence.

The pleasures of The Hours, both for its characters and its viewers, come from moments of surprise and impulse—the following of a socially sanctioned path by default causes dread and dissatisfaction. This, finally, is what is revelatory to me about The Hours: a kiss is not only queer because it occurs between two people of the same gender, but because it upends expectations of linearity and predictability. To search for moments outside of a neatly ordered life is to admit disruption as something potentially joyful, something as likely to enrich a life as it is to damage it. To love life for what it is, then, is not to love the cards you’ve been dealt. It’s to love life for its changes, its upended expectations, its returning pasts, its unruly futures.