The stories of three ennui-ridden women separated by decades commingle with calculated resonance in “The Hours.” Considerable intelligence and strategic finesse have been brought to bear on this handsomely mounted adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which was hardly a natural for the bigscreen. Fine performances and the tony pedigree make this a strong prestige title domestically for Paramount, which partnered with foreign distrib Miramax. Critical support, year-end kudos and a smart graduated release pattern could push this considerably further into successful general release than might have been originally imagined based on the rarified and depressive material. “The Hours” was the original title of “Mrs. Dalloway,” and it is Virginia Woolf’s tour de force 1925 novel that serves as a reference point and source of inspiration for this interlocking tale of three women who have intimate connections with the book: The first is Woolf herself, whose 1941 suicide opens the film and who is thereafter seen battling her demons during the writing of the tome 18 years before.
Next is a devoted reader, Laura Brown, a frustrated housewife in 1951 suburban Los Angeles who flirts with a Woolfian demise.
Then there is modern New York literary editor Clarissa Vaughan, whose first name is the same as Mrs. Dalloway’s and who must deal with a writer friend’s imminent death.
On the page, the intersections of the three narratives creep up on the reader with subtle grace; onscreen, the immediacy of intercutting renders them considerably more emphatic. Also more pronounced in the movie is the dour mood, partly because the manifestations of suffering and suicide are more disturbing when acted out, and additionally because many of the novel’s felicitous literary touches haven’t all found their cinematic equivalents.
All the same, given the challenge and seriousness of the undertaking, the result is certainly better than it might have been. Screenwriter David Hare, director Stephen Daldry and the outstanding cast are on the novel’s wavelength, and try to represent it as faithfully and sensitively as possible. On the whole, the important dramatic moments have been absorbingly rendered and the intricate balancing act among the three stories has been well managed, even if, in the end, the film seems like a collection of scenes rather than a synthesis that has much payoff.
Perhaps the most successful of the three tales is Virginia’s, surprising both in that it isn’t easy presenting a serious writer on the screen, and that her travails are the most difficult to pin down and identify with.
But her opening suicide, in which the depressed artist, weighted down with stones, strides into a cold river, commands an immediate fascination, and Nicole Kidman, made drab (but still, paradoxically, charismatic) by the addition of an elongated prosthetic nose and otherwise frumpy getup, rewards the interest with a brooding, inward but revealing portrait of an emotional narcissist beset by devastating headaches and a craving to be back in London; on doctor’s orders, enforced by her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane), she has been removed to the quiet of suburban Richmond.
Operating under the author’s guiding principle in “Mrs. Dalloway” to convey “A woman’s whole life in a single day,” but times three, the picture proper starts with three different breakfasts: Virginia Woolf refusing Leonard’s exhortation to eat, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) trying to get young son Richie to do the same, and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) badgering her AIDS-stricken long-ago lover Richard Brown (Ed Harris) about his eating habits and reminding him she’s throwing a party for him later in the day to celebrate his winning a literary prize.
The other two tales lead up to parties as well, albeit smaller ones. Virginia is having over for tea sister Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson) and the latter’s three kids, while Laura has the day to prepare for the birthday party of her WWII vet husband, Dan (John C. Reilly), for whom she and Richie will bake a cake.
As the separate narratives move along, Virginia sneaks out to the train station in an attempt to return to London, but also announces, while seemingly in a deep artistic trance, “I was going to kill my heroine, but I can’t.”
Cut to Laura, who in a desperate expression of her stultifying domestic unhappiness has dropped off her kid and checked into a hotel, where she dreams of her own death. Suicide shortly thereafter convulses the modern New York story, as each narrative comes to reflect various responses to Virginia’s remark to her husband that “I am living a life I have no wish to live.”
Although it is the most detailed and heavily populated by different characters, the Gotham drama is the least compelling, not least because the characters are the most familiar: the angry AIDS victim; his superficial, responsibility-shirking former boyfriend (Jeff Daniels); thelifestyle-preoccupied socialite; her ever-understanding lover (Allison Janney) and cynical daughter (Claire Danes).
Additionally, the angst is most explicitly articulated here via Richard’s rants and Clarissa’s big breakdown over how she’s tried to hold it all together through the years of tending to Richard’s ever-increasing needs.
“The Hours” is much more effective in its quiet moments. Among its most memorable images are those of Woolf in her study, smoking away, a lap board and paper before her as she composes “Mrs. Dalloway” in fountain pen surrounded by countless pages strewn across the floor. There is also her furtive dash to the station and her wait on the bench until Leonard tracks her down, as well as Laura’s escape to the hotel just to be alone to read “Mrs. Dalloway” and ponder her fate.
In these scenes and others, director Daldry displays an advance in judgment and willingness to restrain technique after “Billy Elliot.” His work with actors remains expert. Kidman, especially, excels, indicating a new depth and maturity as she brings a potentially difficult character to life. Moore’s role represents an interesting variation on her anguished 1950s housewife in “Far From Heaven,” while Streep nimbly expresses the immediate priorities and life-defining disappointments of a seemingly self-assured urban woman who, of all the characters, is most like Mrs. Dalloway. As in the book, lesbian aspects fully incorporated into the modern story are more subtly present in the earlier episodes.
One can quibble with certain choices in the supporting performances. Adding more caustic, self-deprecating humor to his tirades might have sharpened and enlarged Harris’ portrait of a successful poet who insists he accomplished nothing, while Daniels and Toni Collette, the latter as a neighbor of Laura’s about to undergo threatening surgery, are more theatrical in style than the rest of the ensemble. And perhaps Laura’s husband, played as a warm-hearted but clueless big puppy by Reilly, didn’t have to be such a total writeoff.
By contrast, Dillane and Richardson deliver incisive interpretations of Virginia’s closest intimates in limited screen time.
Location work and production design strongly evoke the northern settings, although the L.A. section looks suspiciously like Florida. Seamus McGarvey’s lensing is friendly to the thesps and particularly good at distinguishing the darker shadings of the British section. Ann Roth’s costumes are helpful in elaborating the personalities of the characters.
Philip Glass’ score, which makes generous use of some of his pre-existing compositions, is clearly designed to connect the three story strands emotionally by rolling across them so sweepingly. At times, this creates unusual frissons that would not have been achieved by a traditional score, but it is just as often intrusive and too prominent in the overall scheme.
Among other things, pic is about women whose failures in the most important roles in their lives — as a wife, mother or friend — push them to emotional crises so severe that they must weigh the value of continuing to li
ve. Ending leaves little sense of catharsis.