Dead white females

February 28, 2003

There is an unintended significance in Brenda Silver's remark about Virginia Woolf: "That nose: so prominent, so aristocratic, so much a part of our visual imagine of Virginia Woolf that The Hours' film-makers felt compelled to reproduce it on Nicole Kidman's face" ("Who dares turn their noses up at Mrs Dalloway?", THES , February 21).

Kidman's prosthetic transformation does not make her look like Woolf, whose nose was long and pointed, but like a retired prizefighter.

The nose is symbolic of the film's travesty of Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

Kidman's disturbed genius - brooding and sullen with impenetrable looks - has no hint of the gay character Woolf could be.

Ironically, her niece Angelica Garnett pays tribute to her ideal aunt in Deceived by Kindness , but Kidman's Woolf ignores her two nephews and niece when they call. The three are accompanied by Miranda Richardson as Vanessa Bell - too short, just as Kidman is too young. Richardson is impeccably dressed. Bell was the archetypal Bloomsbury bohemian. She is shown as fussy and respectable, not at all the woman painter who had an open marriage with a husband and a lover.

The portrayal of Woolf's mental illness is mild next to the terrors she faced - her screen death is described by her biographer, Hermione Lee, as "prettified". Like too many films, The Hours seems unable to convey the subtleties of artists who are mentally ill. This may be because cinema finds it difficult to portray the nuances in literature.

While it is encouraging that The Hours is prompting a rise in sales of Woolf's work, one wonders how many of these are to new readers. One pity of the cinematic fad for Dead White Females is that Woolf, Iris Murdoch and - soon - Sylvia Plath will be better known to the average cinemagoer as women with mental illness than major writers of the 20th century.

Terry Philpot
Limpsfield, Surrey

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