Director of The Hours, Stephen Daldry, began his career in theater. So
he has his own understanding in staging action. Although long shots are
considered as a more theatrical medium for mise en scène, Daldry use
more close shots than long shots to concentrate the characters’ emotion.
But it does not necessarily mean long shots share no importance in this
movie. In fact, we can see Daldry’s art of mise en scène by analyzing
those scarce long shots in The Hours. This essay chooses one typical
long shot to see how mise en scène, as one of the nonverbal language
system, gives information to the audience.
In one scene, Mrs. Brown watched her husband drives to work in her
house, forcing an unnatural smile. Her 5-year-old son Charles is gazing
behind her. The mise en scène is compartmentalized into two, with the
door frame serving as the vertical dividing line. Brown is on the right
and in the upper portion of the frame. Charles dominates the left lower
half. Charles can feel things are beginning to go wrong and Brown
realizes once again she does not want life like this. Brown tunes back,
facing her son. They are both silent. This is the dramatic context and
the analysation of this shot is as follow:
Laura Brown: Obviously, you… feel unworthy. Gives you feelings of
unworthiness. You survive and they don’t.
When Laura and Richard are going to make a cake for Dan, Laura says, we
are baking the cake to show him that we love him. Then Richard asks
‘Otherwise he won’t know we love him?’. Laura gives answer ‘Yes’. It
sets me thinking a lot. Love is an emotion, a feeling, but still needs
to show. People show love through kisses, hugs, touches. It is necessary
and very important. Although some people would ignore this in daily
life, which quite reduces their happiness.
Dan Brown: The thought of this life, that’s what kept me going. I had an
idea of our happiness.
As Louis Giannetti suggests, movie is a complex art compounding many
language systems at the same time. Scientific research has proven that,
non-verbal messages often convey more meaning than the spoken word.
Before talkies were introduced to the public, silent movies had
developed some techniques, montage, for instant, to present the stories
and ideas to audiences. Even today, in the commercial cinema, directors
are still using those nonverbal techniques to achieve a better movie.
There are many nonverbal languages, such as photography, editing, mise
en scène, sound, acting (especially physical movement and facial
expression), and figurative comparison. They interact dynamically and
simultaneously within a single text. Some of them are overt, while the
others are subliminal that audience are unconsciously impressed.
Academy Award-winning movie the Hours, considered as “a fascinating and
ultimately successful stunt in its cross-cutting among the decades”, is
a feminist movie directed by Stephen Daldry in 2003. In this impressive
movie, Daldry successfully uses various nonverbal language systems to
tell the stories of three women: Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown and
Clarissa Vaughn. All three are negotiating their way through different
depressive states and struggling with issues of freedom, responsibility
and identity: Virginia Woolf is striving to write her novel “Mrs.
Dalloway” in 1923, as she recovers from melancholia; Laura Brown is a
depressed and pregnant L.A. housewife who reads Woolf’s novel in 1951,
as she plans her husband’s birthday party; and, the exasperated Clarissa
Vaughn is a book editor in modern-day New York, who is planning a
farewell party for her AIDS-inflicted former lover, Richard, a famous
author who had nicknamed her Mrs. Dalloway because she has once played a
late 20th century version of Woolf’s novel.
It is a wonderful topic about life and humanity.
~※~ (before her suicide attempt)
Laura Brown: Baby. Baby, you have to be brave now.
The audience may find out that, full shots and deep focus are seldom
seen in this movie. Instead, cinematographer use lots of close-up with
shallow focus to present the story. It is because the Hours is a movie
focusing on three women’s inner worlds. Close-up tends to encourage the
audience to observe the facial expression of the women and thereby to
notice the conflicts in their minds. Shallow focus helps in the same
way. By making the surroundings vague, it concentrates on human face.
Color and tone is another important technique of photography in this
movie. For a long time, color and tone have been serving for symbolic
purpose in any form of visual art. Mostly, cool colors suggest serenity,
depression and apartness while warm colors suggest violence, hope and
stimulation. Likewise, dark tone implies evil and fear while bright tone
implies pleasure and joy. Women in the Hours are live in three different
times with three different living conditions, but they are all suffering
from depression. Therefore, filmmaker creates three different tones in
order to make distinctions between them.
Virginia Woolf, is a woman with melancholia in 1950s. So we can see the
tone in this part is mainly gloomy. Sometimes, there is warm sunshine in
the shots but she barely faces it. This is actually indicating that her
advanced vision of life and woman is incongruous in that society where
feminist thoughts are still nascent and immature. We know that Virginia
ends her own life in the end, so the gloomy tone also reflects her own
personal struggle with the idea of suicide.
Different from Virginia Woolf, Laura Brown lives in a post-war world, so
the filmmaker uses warm colors to create such a lively and hopeful
atmosphere. However, such a high key tone and Brown’s inner mind are in
striking contrast. Thus, the audience can hardly find any joy but strong
discomfort because of the besieging reality.
As for Clarissa Vaughn, she lives in 20 century’s New York, a big
multicultural city. So the neutral tone with various colors indicates
such a modern developed world. It is noteworthy that, every time when
Vaughn visit Richard, her ex-boyfriend who eventually commits suicide,
the tones change to cool and low key, representing desperate feeling.
Rather than telling one story, the Hours intercut three. Connecting
stories from three different women in three different times can be a
huge challenge. Nevertheless, Daldry did a fantastic job by skillfully
using thematic montage. Three stories are developed not separately but
in parallel fashion. Scenes of one time period are intercut with scenes
of another. The continuity is no longer physical, or even psychological,
Stories of three women are jointed at certain motifs in the movie. For
example, flowers in three different time of period intercut in 10
seconds to deepen the motif. Moreover, there are scenes of their
partners coming home in the morning. They then introduce different
stories: Woolf’s husband sees the suicide note; Mr. Brown buys flowers
to her wife; Clarissa is waked up by her partner’s move. In the Hours,
we can see dozens of jointing point like that.
Another highlight on editing in this movie is about Charles. When the
little boy is crying and chasing her mother’s car, there is a close up
on his face. At the same time, a photo of Mrs. Brown fades in. With the
lens zooming out, the audience sees an old man’s hand holding the
picture. The audience knows this is the hand of Richard, Clarissa’s
ex-boyfriend. This montage reveals the relation between the characters
and surprises the audience.
The third, Kiss. In 1923, Virginia kissed her sister Nessa. Nessa was
scared and hard to console Virginia, she left in a way more like
escaping. In 1951, Laura kissed her neighbor Kitty. Kitty also left her,
but in peace, not awkward. In 2001, Clarissa kissed Sally and only this
woman didn’t walk away. It reveals the progress of Feminism and maybe
also Lesbianism. However, what I want to argue is that under the
Feminism and Lesbianism, which viewers can see outside, it is humanity.
I notice details when they kiss. Nessa looked hesitated to when she came
and to give a kiss on the cheek. She was looking at Virginia’s lips,
very strange, and then kissed on her cheek. Kitty looked at Laura and
eyes show her desire entirely, maybe just for comfort, but she did need
that kiss. People who were kissed did need and long for kiss, but they
were scared when the kiss came true. Virginia and Laura gave their
kisses with whole courage, but reality treated them cruelly. That’s why
they became disappointed and tried to escape after kissing. It is tragic
that people can’t admit their desire and need, escaping from own heart,
like Nessa and Kitty. It is, more tragic, that people who have finally
adapted their own and be brave to show their desires, couldn’t be
accepted by this world, like Virginia and Laura.
Clarissa Vaughn: He gives me that look.
Julia: What look?
Clarissa Vaughn: To say your life is trivial. You are so trivial.
The film tells three different women’s lives in one single day. As
Virginia said, a woman’s whole life, just in one single day. They have
connections and their experiences can be regarded as comparisons. I want
to explain it through some typical objects or scenes in this film.
Clarissa Vaughn: Why is everything wrong?
Mise en scène
The second, Shoes. In 1941, Virginia drowned herself in the river out of
her house. When she is floating away with water, the shoes are left
behind. In 1952, Laura is going to kill herself in the hotel. She sits
on the edge of bed, and puts feet out of shoes slowly. In 2001, after
the conversation with Richard’s mother, Laura, Clarissa goes back to her
bedroom, takes off the shoes. Shoes, in this film, represents prison to
these women, or to say it exactly, they are chains which wrap humans
tightly. Once they take off their shoes, they could finally put
Clarissa Vaughn: When I’m with him I feel… Yes, I am living. And when
I’m not with him… Yes, everything does seem sort of silly.
The Hours is successful in both commercial box office and critics. It
receives 9 Academy Award nominations and becomes the 56th highest
grossing film of 2002. A successful movie involves lots of factors. But
there is no doubt that, the masterly use of nonverbal language certainly
contributes much to it. The nonverbal languages such as photography,
mise en scène and montage contain lots of information that the director
would like to share with the audience. And in The Hours, such techniques
are perfectly put together to deepen the theme and, once again, shows
enchantment of movie art.
The love, whether is Leonard to Virginia or Clarissa to Richard, is pure
and never asks for return. Some people would doubt that why they are
still not happy since someone loves them heart and soul. No one asks
what they want. It is the love, too heavy for them to bear. I guess even
themselves don’t what they real want, from Virginia’s behaviors. ‘ The
poetry will die.’ They live in a poetry way.
Virginia Woolf: You return to what?
Vanessa Bell: Tonight. Oh, just some insufferable dinner not even you
could envy, Virginia.
Virginia Woolf: But I do.
There are people who look like to be lonely and they seldom walk closely
to others. However, it doesn’t demonstrate that they don’t care. I think
it is a contrast between 1923 and 2001. In 1923, Nessa doesn’t invite
Virginia to her party because she thought Virginia would not come even
she invited her. Virginia said, even crazy people like to be invited.
Same in 2001, Richard refuses to attend the party which is for him and
held by Clarissa. Later Sally points out that Richard always comes to
parties even he says no. So that’s what the film wants to tell us.
People have different ways to live, to think, to feel. But one thing is
certain that people all like the feeling that they are needed and loved.
Virginia and Richard are people who are hard to express emotions, like
love, but they do own it.
Laura Brown: I love you, sweetheart. You’re my guy.
- Dominant. Because of the extremely high contrast between the light
outside and the moving body of her, Brown tends to attract the
audience’s eye first. She is also the subject where the little boy in
the foreground is gazing.
- Lighting Key. The interior is photographed in moderate low key, with
the exterior consisting mostly of blinding sun light which is in extreme
- Shot and camera proxemics. This is a deep-focus shot, extending from
a medium rage in the foreground to a full shot range in the background.
With such a shot, we can only focus on what is going on inside the
house. The man outside is not our concern any more. The camera is at a
personal distance from Charles, a social distance from Brown. The woman
is gazing on her son silently, and the audience is watching her from the
view of little Charles, having no idea of what wrong with Brown.
- Angle. Because we can see more of the floor than the ceiling, so the
camera is at a slight high angel. The angle implies a slight air of
- Color values. Warm colors but in dark tone, suggesting unconscious
despair and depression are concealed under the peaceful life.
- Lens/filter/stock. A wide-angle lens is used to capture its depth of
field. The lens emphasizes the distance between the mother and son. No
apparent filter. It is difficult to discern the stock being used here.
- Subsidiary contrasts. Our eye travels from Brown (the dominant) to
little Charles. In this shot, we will probably focus more on Brown
because she is turning round.
- Density. The shot has a high degree of density, especially
considering the low-key lighting. Such details as the vase, the flowers,
the tables, the lamps, the sofas, the chair, the window and the
expressive face of Mrs. Brown are creating kind of constriction and
sense of pressure in a normal cozy house.
- Composition. The image is divided into two areas, left and right. It
is suggesting tension between the mother and son.
- Form. Closed: with a closed door and a lot of furniture, there is no
exit for Mrs. Brown to escape through. The house is a symbol of her
- Framing. The shot is tightly framed, with little latitude for
movement. Both the mother and son have no way out. Especially for Mrs.
Brown, she is imprisoned within the frame of the window, implying that
she is stuck in her current life.
- Depth. The shot is photographed in three depth planes: (a) Little
Charles in the foreground; (b) the rest of the parlor; and (c) Mrs.
Brown in front of the window.
- Character placement. Mrs. Brown occupies the upper portion of the
image, her son Charles the lower. It is a portentous placement, for the
reason the mother and son are maximally separated at the opposite edges
of the composition, indicating that they will be apart eventually.
- Staging position. Charles is back to camera but close to the
audience, giving a relatively intimate impression. Brown is in
quarter-turn position so that we can see her and feel her pain. However,
the distance between her and the audience makes Brown unpredictable.
- Character proxemics. Charles is far from his mother, in a social
So, what will you choose when the essence of life becomes clear to you?
Life or Death?
Virginia Woolf: I’ve been attended by doctors, who inform me OF MY OWN
There are several symbolic motifs in the movie the Hours. The two most
important motifs in the movie are water and flower.
The first scene of the movie is a close up of the choppy river. Soon
after this scene, Virginia Woolf writes a suicide note and steps out of
her house heading to the river where she finally drowns herself.
Similarly, after Laura Brown takes the pills and tries to commit suicide
in the motel room, there is a surreal scene showing that she is drowning
in the water. Obviously, water is serving as a motif here, reminding the
audience of the similar situation that bothering both Woolf and Brown.
They both want freedom but they are imprisoned by the social role of
female and the ordinary family life. Therefore, water is also a
generalized symbol of threat, which makes them overburdened and decides
to surrender life. However, times have changed. Society gives more and
more freedom to women. That’s why the water in the motel room recedes
when Brown wakes up. Though Brown is sick of normal life like Virginia
Woolf does, she chooses to fight back and starts her own life by leaving
Flowers are the subject of the famous opening line of Mrs. Dalloway and
appear throughout The Hours as tools to “brighten moments of emotional
intensity”. In Mrs. Dalloway, the story begins with her leaving her
house to buy flowers for the party that night. Clarissa Vaughn leaves
her apartment with the same intention. Flowers, particularly roses, have
different implications for each of the major characters: for Virginia,
the roses around the dead bird’s bed indicate funereal blankness and
release. For Clarissa, the flowers she buys signify joy and vitality.
She brings Richard flowers to brighten his dark apartment, and she
brings some home to decorate her own apartment. Mrs. Brown sees the
roses that she puts on the birthday table for Dan as a way to make up
for the mental distance she puts between herself and her family.
This art movie is in autobiography way. It adapts the life of British
writer Virginia Woolf, also with her famous work 《Mrs. Dalloway》. In
some introductions, this movie is usually pasted with key words
‘Feminism’ and ‘Lesbianism’ . However, I don’t think great works like
this one can only be defined by one ‘-ism’. It is more like to tell
humanities, to reveal real and common feelings of all creatures.
Richard Brown: Who is this party for?
Clarissa Vaughan: What are you asking, what are you trying to say?
Richard Brown: I’m not trying to say anything. I think I’m staying alive
just to satisfy you.
Virginia Woolf: Did it matter, then, she asked herself, walking toward
Bond Street. Did it matter that she must inevitably cease, completely.
All this must go on without her. Did she resent it? Or did it not become
consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? It is possible to die.
It is possible to die.
Virginia Woolf: I’m dying in this town.
Leonard Woolf: If you were thinking clearly, Virginia, you would recall
it was London that brought you low.
Virginia Woolf: If I were thinking clearly? If I were thinking
Leonard Woolf: We brought you to Richmond to give you peace.
Virginia Woolf: If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you
that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can
know. Only I can understand my condition. You live with the threat, you
tell me you live with the threat of my extinction. Leonard, I live with
The first, Flowers. Virginia in 1923 started her novel with the
sentence: Mrs. Dalloway said…she would buy the flowers…herself. Please
pay attention on the last word ‘Herself’. It remarks the original of
Feminism. Women are beginning to aware that they have the desire to do
something on their own. In Virginia’s day, her maid bought blue flowers.
In 1951, an American woman, who is a young mother with a son Richard and
baby in venter. Her husband bought her yellow roses even it is the man’s
birthday. She feels upset because she even couldn’t buy flowers by
herself. It seems like that everything, even the simplest thing she
wants to do are all out of her hand. In 2001, this time is more
progressive, the third woman Clarissa Vaughan lives with her girlfriend
Sally and they have been together for ten years. Among these three women
from different times, only Clarissa put forward she wanted to buy
flowers herself and she did. It is a pity that I can’t figure out these
three types of flowers since I feel there could be some special meanings
in different types of flowers.
Virginia Woolf: This is my right; it is the right of every human being.
I choose not the suffocating anesthetic of the suburbs, but the violent
jolt of the Capital, that is my choice. The meanest patient, yes, even
the very lowest is allowed some say in the matter of her own
prescription. Thereby she defines her humanity. I wish, for your sake,
Leonard, I could be happy in this quietness.
Virginia Woolf: But if it is a choice between Richmond and death, I
Clarissa Vaughn: He came out behind me. He put his hand on my
shoulder…”Good morning, Mrs. Dalloway.” From then on I’ve been
Louis Waters: Stuck?
Clarissa Vaughn: Yep. With the name, I mean.
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Angelica Bell: What happens when we die?
Virginia Woolf: What happens?
Virginia Woolf: We return to the place that we came from.
Angelica Bell: I don’t remember where I came from.
Virginia Woolf: Nor do I.
Virginia Woolf: You cannot find peace by avoiding life, Leonard.
Virginia Woolf: It’s on this day. This day of all days. Her fate becomes
clear to her.
Laura also deeply knows the essence of life. She just chooses to live, a
different choice from Virginia and Richard. ‘It would be wonderful to
say you regretted it. It would be easy. But what does it mean? What does
it mean to regret when you have no choice? It’s what you can bear.’
Laura is the one who chooses to bear the hours after the ‘party’. There
are only two choices, life or death, once you know what the life is (for
people like Laura and Richard). And that is why Richard finally
understands his mother Laura. Clarissa also knows it and she forces
herself to ignore it. This is another way when faced with life. That’s
why Laura says to her ‘You are a lucky woman’.
Virginia Woolf: Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should
value life more. It’s contrast.
At the end of the film, there is a classic rhesis said by Virginia. ‘ To
look life in the face, always to look life in the face, and to know it
for what it is. At last, to know it, to love it for what it is, and then
to put it away.’ Virginia and Richard choose death while Laura chooses
life when they all look their own lives clearly. It is a contrast. To
choose death, because they have other people’s love and they couldn’t
pay off. It is a reason when Richard said to Clarissa that he felt he
lived to satisfy her. It is a reason Richard chooses death and he can’t
bear the hours even after the party. It is a reason that Virginia can’t
live but still say thanks and love to Leonard.
Laura Brown: We’re baking the cake to show him that we love him.
Richie Brown: Otherwise he won’t know we love him?
Laura Brown: That’s right.
Richard Brown: Like that morning, when you walked out of that old house
and you were, you were eighteen, and maybe I was nineteen. I was
nineteen years old, and I’d never seen anything so beautiful. You,
coming out of a glass door in your early morning, still sleepy. Isn’t it
strange, the most ordinary morning in anybody’s life? I’m afraid I can’t
make it to the party, Clarissa. You’ve been so good to me, Mrs.
Dalloway, I love you. I don’t think two people could have been happier
than we’ve been