The cross cut story structure of The Hours sets a high standard for the film. By doing a “day in the life” of three women from three different decades, the film inevitably 1) compares and contrasts the three, 2) highlights the importance of the cut from one scene to another, and 3) relies on subtle reveals to carry the plot. Unfortunately, The Hours does not pay off these three elements as well as it should.
David Hare’s script of Michael Cunningham’s novel compares the women in superficial ways – how they turn in bed, wash their faces, enjoy flowers, etc. – but not with a depth that could help each illuminate the others. We could say that each is paralyzed by her traditional role as care giver. But that is a pretty broad generalization with limited payoff, and one that, in the case of Virginia Woolf, is a bit of a stretch. Her husband is the care-giver, and she is trapped as much by her own mental illness as by his efforts to protect her.
The cross cut structure brings our attention to the juxtaposition of scenes, and in The Hours not much comes of that. The “day in the life” technique leads to certain obvious insights about these women, since they each do similar things at each moment of the day. But it struck me that the scene sequence could have been changed to a number of different orders without much difference in audience understanding.
The one moment where the juxtaposition of scenes is more than superficial is when the film goes from Julianne Moore driving to Richard, who is dying of AIDS, and we realize that he is Julianne Moore’s little boy. This gives the film a much-needed jolt. But it also highlights what is largely missing from the script, the subtle reveals necessary to build a story of daily life.
The cross cut is a very powerful structural tool in film. You can compare at the speed of light. But if you are also adhering to the rule that a feature film must come in around two hours, you run the grave risk of being superficial. The more lines you cross cut within that two-hour frame, the less depth you achieve.
With The Hours we have three short stories that are playing simultaneously. One or more of these stories may be interesting, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts.