There are always some years when an Oscar win is not only the result of a strong, critically acclaimed performance but also the outcome of what is considered ‘the year of an actor’ or ‘the right time’. 1944 was Ingrid Bergman’s year, not only because of her performance in Gaslight but also because of her work in the previous years which did not make her truly due but, combined with her overall reputation as one of Hollywood’s brightest and likeable stars, simply added up to a powerful momentum that made hers a win that was not only appreciated but also ‘popular’. 1945 was the year of Joan Crawford because her comeback in Mildred Pierce was as celebrated as it was unexpected. 1946 was the year of Olivia de Havilland who not only had been working very hard in Hollywood for a lot of years but also because of her history-making court fight against the studio system. 1954 was the year of Grace Kelly, 1956 again the year of Ingrid Bergman, 1960 was the year of Elizabeth Taylor, 1961 the year of Sophia Loren, 1964 of Julie Andrews – and so on and so on. All the acting categories offer enough examples of actors and actresses who won at exactly the right time in their career because it was their moment, their peak and their year. And 2002 was the year of Nicole Kidman. She peaked at just the right moment with just the right kind of performance. She had proven her versatility before but after her divorce from Tom Cruise most people probably expected her to disappear slowly but steadily from the public again – but instead she suddenly turned herself into one of Hollywood’s most respect actresses who constantly surprised audiences and critics with the choices she made. In 2001, she made an impressive two-punch with her part as a dying courtesan in the extravagant musical Moulin Rouge and as a strict but also terrified mother in the gothic thriller The Others. Combined with her personal backstory, an Oscar win that year would have been almost logical but Halle Berry’s turn as a grieving widow and mother turned out to be a stronger attraction for the Academy. So, this chance had passed for Nicole Kidman – but instead of losing any momentum she only enhanced it by again doing something completely different and unexpected when she played the depressive and suicidal author Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. Even though the role lacked important screen time and was considerably shorter than most other winners in this category, her dramatic and dominant storyline, the downplay of her own looks and her obvious willingness to constantly improve and stretch herself as an actress helped her to become an almost unstoppable force on Oscar night – okay, let’s not forget that this was actually a very competitive year with Julianne Moore and Diane Lane winning important critics awards while Renée Zellweger emerged as a late frontrunner thanks to her industry support but in the end, Nicole Kidman must have taken it with a rather comfortable lead because awarding her just felt too ‘right’ in this moment – it was her year. Of course, it’s all speculation anyway…
The fact that Nicole Kidman remained so willing during her career to always try something new and different certainly makes her an actress that is very easy to respect and admire. Personally, I would not call myself a fan in any way but there is no denying that few other actresses made such strong attempts to prevent themselves from being typecast in any kind of role or resting too cozily in their own comfort zone. During her career, she switched from musicals like Moulin Rouge to thrillers like The Peacemaker or The Invasion and then to dramas by Lars von Trier or Anthony Minghella and then to comedies with Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler. After her Oscar win, Nicole Kidman’s peak may have been gone almost as quickly as it had come and it would take quite some time for her to get back to the Academy Awards as a nominee but her work during this period was just as exciting as it had been before and she undoubtedly acquired one of the most varied and diversified resumes in Hollywood. And what’s even more remarkable is the sheer fact that Nicole Kidman was not only willing to constantly push her boundaries and risk something new with these different collaborations but also that she was able to almost always completely fit into the different styles of these movie and roles. She fit as smoothly into the over-the-top surroundings of Moulin Rouge as she did into the dark atmosphere of The Others or into Stephen Daldry’s The Hours, the tale of three women who suffer from their lack of dreams, from their dissatisfaction with their lives as they are and their inability to break free without hurting the ones they love and who are connected by their characters, by their actions or even just by their words. There has been a lot of talk about the category placement of Nicole Kidman but personally I cannot find any reason to consider hers anything else than a leading performance. The Hours presents three equal storylines among which Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman present the clear central characters. While Meryl Streep’s storyline consisted of present-day scenes, Julianne Moore again proved that she seems to belong into the 50s more than any other actress of her generation. And Nicole Kidman accepted the challenge to bring the character of Virginia Woolf to life, a woman who more than anything seems to want to be free of life completely. The equality of the three different storylines could easily have put Nicole Kidman in the danger of either being overshadowed by the work of Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore or appearing not unique enough to be singled out among the cast-members. And it’s true that all three actresses deliver powerful performances but Nicole Kidman was helped by the fact that her storyline is a combination of its own ideas and thoughts but also exists as a reference point for the actions of all other characters – Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep don’t exist in the world of Virginia Woolf but Nicole Kidman is constantly floating above Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan, almost as if she is influencing and guiding their doings. Her presence can not only be felt at almost every moment of The Hours but whenever the story cuts back to her storyline, the movie suddenly feels different and almost disrupted – but never interrupted. The nature of Nicole Kidman’s storyline as the basis for the stories of Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughan gives her a dominant position in The Hours but this position constantly seems to connect her to the overall plot just as much as it brings her apart from it – the story of Virginia Woolf stands in close connection to the other storylines but more than them it also exists completely independent from the movie itself. And even though it is rather the structure of The Hours which made this possible, Nicole Kidman’s characterization not only creates and influences the tone and atmosphere of her storyline but rather is this tone and atmosphere.
To be clear, this is not a flawless performance – there are moments when the character seems to disappear and the actress becomes more obvious. Especially whenever a scene requires a louder intensity, Nicole Kidman feels rather forced in her acting – her angry discussion with her husband at the train station about the doctors who want to control her life is such a moment but actually there are also other scenes that feel flawed – these can be very simple instants like Virginia telling her husband that no dreams or headaches were troubling her in the night or asking him if it is alright for her to take a short walk outside. Granted, these are only small moments but this is a performance that basically consists of nothing but small moments so every scene that does not feature the same dark fascination that Nicole Kidman creates in so many other moments stands out disappointingly. The truth is that Nicole Kidman is always most effective in those moments in which she plays a quiet, internal desperation, moments at which Virginia Woolf makes her inability to cope with her life truly tangible. The sight of Virginia Woolf walking around outside, hiding her face under her head and talking to herself about the plot of her next book is incredibly effective because Nicole Kidman truly excels to reach an almost overwhelming level of intensity in quiet moments like this. And thankfully Nicole Kidman also did not forget that Virginia Woolf is not only a woman suffering from depression but also a writer experiencing the thrill of starting a new book, even if it seems to absorb her too much for her own good, only fastening her desire for self-destruction – when she sits in her chair and speaks the first line of her new book, slowly and with an overwhelming exhaustion in her voice, Nicole Kidman again crafts one of those calm moments that is much more memorable than any emotional outburst, in this case mostly because she is able to speak those lines with a hidden sense of self-realization, underlining how Virginia Woolf is slowly discovering this sentence and with it the whole concept of her new book herself in these few seconds.
The most fascinating aspect of Nicole Kidman’s performance is that she was able to find such a non-emotional way for portraying this character – Virginia Woolf is a woman suffering from depressions, she is suicidal, caught in her own desperation and unable to escape and yet the word ‘heartbreaking’ is probably the last one that would describe her performance. Her approach to her material is much more intellectual than emotional and therefore she challenges the viewer instead of trying to win any sympathy. Basically, Nicole Kidman managed to create a invariable forlornness by constantly ‘acting alone’ – even when she shares the screen, her Virginia constantly seems out-of-focus, alone in her thoughts, talking to the persons besides her but somehow not really noticing them. Especially in her scenes with Virginia’s sister, Nicole Kidman masters the combination of Virginia’s loneliness and her hope to connect to other people. And her following goodbye scene is maybe the only moment in her performance that can be called truly touching on an emotional level – her quiet ‘Nessa’ as her sister leaves the room, her hopeless goodbye to her niece and her forlornness as she realizes that she will probably never be able to escape turn this into one of those single moments that can define a whole performance and that leaves a lasting impression because of its haunting, implacable, intransigent and dark presentation and the overwhelming amount of sadness put into a few words.
Nicole Kidman also succeeded in avoiding making her character too obvious – lines like ‘the female ones are larger. And less colorful’ basically hit the viewer over the head but Nicole Kidman manages not only to make this dialogue work but expresses it in a way that neglects every bit of symbolism – instead of emphasizing her sharp figure, her constant depressions and desperations, she turns them into a normal part of her character, presenting it without overstating it. But not only her lines about female birds, but so many of them actually feel too contrived, calculated and exaggerated for their own good but Nicole Kidman managed to handle them with surprising ease. Her quiet monologue at the train station during which she tells her husband that she wants to decide her own life herself is such a moment. Surprisingly, the character of Virginia Woolf actually offers little to Nicole Kidman in the context of The Hours since the character appears severely underwritten many times, despite so many overstated lines – but Nicole Kidman was able to put Virginia Woolf’s personal problems, her obsession with her work and her desire to return to London in a greater context in which she was able to tell almost the whole character of this woman without needing the words to highlighten it. The scene with the dead bird, already mentioned for the heavy-handed dialogue, is more than anything noteworthy for Nicole Kidman’s ability to portray honest desire, fear, desperation, grief and even curiosity at the same time. By displaying such images of inner pain convincingly, Nicole Kidman most of all managed to make her Virginia Woolf understandable – she enters the movie already completely developed by the script and the direction and there will also be no true development but she managed to give a face to the depression that is haunting her, making her troubles, sorrows and bitterness visible without overdoing it. Because of this, no explanations for her behaviors ever feels necessary.
Overall, Nicole Kidman gave a performance that makes both the physical and mental exhaustion of the character completely perceptible at every moment of the movie. Looking back at this review, I may have sounded a bit more enthusiastic than I actually am – the great moments of Nicole Kidman’s performance all feel rather singular, meaning that they are all easy to admire but it’s somehow hard to construct a complete whole out of the single pieces, mainly because this performance, as mentioned before, it not without its flaws. More than anything, Nicole Kidman creates images with this performance – images of Virginia Woolf lying next to a dead bird, slowly disappearing into a river, hesitating before she talks to her servants or sitting alone on a bench at an empty train station. And for her ability to create these intriguing images while also filling her parts of The Hours with a captivating, dark and quiet desperation, she receives