Saturday, May 2, 2015

Birthday Take: Stephen Daldry in "The Hours" (2002)

Nichole Kidman in The Hours
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Stephen Daldry
Born: May 2, 1961 (54 years old)
Nomination: Best Director - The Hours (nominated)

The Take

Very few directors are as associated with Best Picture/Oscar bait as that of Stephen Daldry. While he isn't a household name, he does hold a very distinguished honor of having all of his films up to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close in the Best Picture race. Many malign his most recent entry as being too pandering to post-9/11 ideals and choosing to put emotion over logic. However, there is something to Daldry's other films that make him not quite as deliberate and obnoxious as his reputation will have you believe.

The most noteworthy of these is The Hours, which seems destined to have been one of the less interesting films of 2002. It follows three different story lines in which women experience suicide in very different ways. Of course, it does help that it has an all star cast that is lead by Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nichole Kidman; the latter of whom won for her performance here. With composer Philip Glass providing one of his best scores, the film manages to mix melodrama with actual emotion and complexity that makes the stories easier to grasp. It also helps that the editing allows for each instance to play out in relevant intervals that result in some of the movie's most memorable moments.

While the gimmick of three stories competing for time may be what sells the film, it is inevitably the performances that make it something far more special. Along with third act twists, the stories are handled with reverence as the women go about their reserved life. There's topics such as mental illness, family and gay rights all in exploration in ways that are candid, heartbreaking and poetic. It also helps that it was adapted from a Pulitzer Prize winning book by Michael Cunningham. Daldry elevates the material and makes something that predates the ambitious Cloud Atlas in exploring grand themes in very clever ways.

There isn't necessarily anything visually stimulating about Daldry's style. He doesn't have any real flair beyond being able to make competent cinematography. This is likely why he is constantly pitted with complaints of Oscar bias. However, he is known for being able to make solid films with memorable performances. The most notable is Kidman as Virginia Woolfe, whose dive into depression and mental illness is the only one of the characters to be based on historical figures. Her dives into conversations about insecurity and alienation are some of the film's most heartbreaking passages that allow for deeper subjects to be explored by the other stories.

Maybe Daldry will never be considered a great filmmaker by the likes of cinephiles. It makes plenty of sense why. However, no one can fault him for making something as poetic and complicated in its beauty as that of The Hours. While he may bend a little often into melodrama, he is also capable of getting great performances out of his actors. In a perfect whirlwind of events, he manages to create something that is meditative and thought provoking on an issue that is still taboo to talk about. For that alone, he deserves some credit in turning what could have been a dour sympathy exercise into actual art.

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