"The Hours" is an Oscar voter's nightmare. An adaptation of Michael Cunningham's novel about three women in three different time periods whose lives are profoundly affected by Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," the film features equally magnificent performances of nearly equal screen time from three of the best actresses working in film today.
Meryl Streep submerges herself in the self-sacrificing soul of Clarissa Vaughan, a modern Manhattan book editor whose longtime dear friend -- and volatile ex-lover -- Richard (Ed Harris) likes to ruffle her feathers by comparing her to the heroine of Woolf's book. Both women are externally serene, perfectionist party-throwers hiding deep reservoirs of regret over missed opportunities while living lives as mother-hen caretakers to others.
Julianne Moore plays Laura Brown, a fragile, pregnant 1950s housewife in the midst of reading "Mrs. Dalloway," whose deep depression (like Woolf's) and suicidal musings (like Dalloway's) go all but unnoticed by everyone except her young son (Jack Rovello), who clings to her apron strings with worry.
And in what is arguably her most extraordinary performance to date, Nicole Kidman plays the self-aware but psychologically unstable Woolf herself, at the time she began writing her most famous novel while living a frustratingly quiet life, for what is supposed to be the sake of her mental health, in a distant suburb of London.
As the stories unfolds in the capable hands of director Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot"), literal and figurative parallels are drawn both between these women and from "Mrs. Dalloway" itself, providing a stirring thematic undercurrent that inspires the film's emotion-informed pacing and editing. Daldry does a flawless job balance the three stories, knowing just when to draw these parallels and when to stay with one woman for a spell.
Streep's story goes uninterrupted when she's visiting Richard, with whom she split 30 years ago after both realized their sexual preferences lay within their own sex. ("The West Wing's" wonderful Allison Janney plays Streep's long-term partner in a relationship that has become lamentably blunt.)
Now at death's door due to AIDS, Richard is supposed to be the guest of honor at Clarissa's latest party, celebrating a literary award he's been given for a thinly-veiled autobiography he wrote some time ago, which alienated many of the friends who were depicted at their worst, if vaguely in cognito. But as she makes several habitual, unappreciated care-taking visits to his dilapidated apartment over the course of the day, gaunt and grievous Richard bemoans the fuss being made over what he considers a pity prize, and his resignation to what he sees as fate.
"I think I'm only staying alive to satisfy you," he says, as Harris (who must have lost a shocking 30 pounds for the role) discerningly betrays the character's newfound regret over having been, in many ways, the heaviest burden she willingly carried her entire adult life.
Daldry sticks with Moore's quietly despondent wife and mother (a character similar in nature to, but strikingly different in realization from, the '50s homemaker she plays in last month's "Far From Heaven") for a long period as her internalized anguish leads her to the edge of a nervous breakdown -- or possibly worse.
And while Kidman's thread as the haggard and confounded Woolf is the most intermittent, if I had to pick the film's best performance and most unforgettable scenes, they would be hers. The fact that she doesn't look at all herself (in dowdy makeup and a character-accurate augmentation of her nose) has far less to do with her transformation into the brilliant, tormented author than does her complete embodiment of the woman's fatiguing, unremitting tension.
Kidman's manifestation goes literally right down to her fingertips from the movie's opening scene, set some 18 years later as she writes a suicide note with strained, ink-stained hands before yanking tight the belt of her overcoat, weighing it down with stones and walking silently into the depths of a gentle river.
Filled with many such resounding and startling moments, aided by consummate supporting performances (John C. Reilly, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Dillane and Jeff Daniels) and tied together beautifully by Philip Glass's modest but fervently illustrative, string-based score -- "The Hours" is a triumph of emotionally and narratively complex filmmaking.
Run time: 114 mins
In Theaters: Friday 14th February 2003
Box Office USA: $41.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $108.8M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Miramax Films, Scott Rudin Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Fresh: 150 Rotten: 36
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Stephen Daldry
Starring: Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, Julianne Moore as Laura Brown, Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughan, Stephen Dillane as Leonard Woolf, Miranda Richardson as Vanessa Bell, George Loftus as Quentin Bell, Charley Ramm as Julian Bell, Sophie Wyburd as Angelica Bell, Lyndsey Marshal as Lottie Hope, Linda Bassett as Nelly Boxall, Christian Coulson as Ralph Partridge, Michael Culkin as Doctor, John C. Reilly as Dan Brown, Jack Rovello as Richie, Toni Collette as Kitty, Ed Harris as Richard Brown, Allison Janney as Sally Lester, Claire Danes as Julia Vaughan, Jeff Daniels as Louis Waters