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Paint by Number

Paint by Number
Credit: The Film Experience

A day in the life of three women.

The Hours follows a single day in the lives of three women—the author Virginia Woolf; Laura Brown, a pregnant stay-at-home mom living in a California suburb in the 1950s; and Clarissa Vaughan, a book editor in modern-day New York City. There is a fourth character, Laura’s son, Richard, who grows up to become one of Clarissa’s dearest friends. The conceit refers back to Virginia Woolf’s book Mrs. Dalloway, which itself tells the story of its protagonist through the events of a single day.

Credit: The Film Experience

Much of the pleasure of this deeply intimate and lovely film is spotting and decoding all the connections between the three stories, so I won’t give too many away. But since the movie opens with Virginia Woolf methodically loading her pockets with rocks and walking into a river, I don’t think I’m spoiling much by saying suicide figures heavily.

As the motifs repeat and ricochet in each story, you can see them reflected in the colors of the characters’ clothes. There are white nightgowns and flowers, there is a lot of blue, there’s a little black, and there is brown. The color-coding is clearest in Laura’s storyline, which not coincidentally is the most fully developed and serves as the theme on which the other two vary.

Credit: Slant

Sad, pensive Laura Brown spends a good chunk of the movie wearing the color for which she is named. If you were an English major, you might have come across the phrase “brown study” in John Ransom Crowe’s “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.” It’s an old term for the dark night of the soul, an all-enveloping existential funk that brings a person to a crisis in the original Greek sense: a decision that will change everything. When a character wears brown in this film, fear for their life.

Blue, by contrast, seems at first to stand for life. Which makes the touches of blue in Virginia’s dress at the train station such a source of tension, and the adult Richard’s blue bathrobe seem like such a betrayal. But it really isn’t. In his childhood scenes, when he is a nervous, anxious boy, trying to connect to his mother, he’s always wearing brown. It isn’t until adulthood that he graduates to blue—suggesting it isn’t the color of life so much as it is the color of choice.

Credit: The Film Experience

I don’t think it’s an accident that Virginia, with at least two other suicide attempts under her belt, is wearing brown when she does eventually succeed. Her crisis at the train station centers on how other people’s endeavors to prevent her from taking her life have also prevented her from living it—by the time she puts on her brown coat and walks into the water, it doesn’t seem like she is choosing to die so much as she is surrendering that decision to the river itself. Perhaps she’s been stripped of her ability to make her own decisions for so long, she no longer knows how.


And Clarissa? She never wears brown. She wrestles with happiness as much as any other character, but never with her life. Toward the end she’s wearing a gold scarf that could maybe suggest brown—you kind of wish it were a little darker and muddier, to stitch things up more neatly—but it doesn’t. She had her crisis long before the movie began; the work before her now is just the messy, unresolvable business of life.

Credit: The Film Experience

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TMN Editor Liz Entman Harper has lived in St. Louis, New York, and Nashville. She sweats the small stuff, like hyphens and commas, and has a day job, but won’t bore you with the details. More by Liz Entman Harper