After having fallen in love with Philip Glass‘ music with Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Powaqqatsi (1988) (and, perhaps in part, with 2015’s Fantastic Four), I came across the film’s soundtrack on Spotify. I’m sure I’ve come across the DVD before and found reasons to dismiss it. “Meryl Streep is overrated.” Or: “I don’t like book adaptations.” Or: “Is this really my type of film?”
What I discovered was a masterpiece that deserves a Criterion release, provided licensing the rights can be sorted out. Could I go as far as to call this Stephen Daldry’s neglected magnum opus?
Nicole Kidman portrays Virginia Woolf here, but you wouldn’t know it unless you saw her name emblazoned on the DVD cover and Wiki article; with an English accent rather than an Australian or American accent, it doesn’t scream her. In the DVD special features, it’s mentioned that they even went as far to give her a prosthetic nose.
But Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore do a marvellous job. A large theme here is the idea of imprisonment, between Virginia Woolf’s ‘imprisonment’ by her husband, placing her in the country in order to ‘cure’ her suicidal tendencies; the imprisonment of Laura as a housewife in 1950s LA, feeling torn between her son, her husband her and largely uneventful life, imprisoned within a suburban America that suppresses sexuality; the imprisonment of Richard within a darkened room and within a diseased body; the body, where one is never able to leave to explore from another person’s perspective, and is imprisoned within through no intention to be born and to remain within until death.
The meta aspect of the film, stemming from the literary tradition (with its focus on Virginia Woolf as a writer), probably works better in the book than the film itself. Yet it handles translation to film rather perfectly, intercutting each character’s lives with recurring themes and events gloriously alongside Philip Glass’ music, but still taking the time so we get engaged in each life; sequences go on for 10 or 15 minutes within a particular time period.
There is a wonderful sense of visual artistry and symbolism. We are given a sense of the idea of art and writing as a process in motion. There is the writing process, inspired by real life; the process of reading and being influenced to make decisions based on it (which is true – my life has certainly been influenced by what I’ve read, whether in terms of outlooks or finding a point of connection with friends and boyfriends), and then there is the process of adaptation (the last segment with Clarissa Vaughn becomes almost a modern day version of Mrs Dalloway, which was the starting point for Cunningham’s novel before he decided to shift the focus) and creating comparisons with people you know (Vaughn is nicknamed ‘Dalloway’).
The film presents an engaging portrait on life and the art we make.