Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:54 - Released 12/27/02

For years, the American film industry has been criticized for its lack of challenging roles for women, and this is why Stephen Daldry’s The Hours is such a rare treat, providing us a chance to watch the work of three of today’s most talented female actors in a film that paints a complex and multi-textured picture of psychological inner turmoil, conflicted sexual identity, and the life-crippling depression that can arise from those issues. Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep, all of whom have proven themselves many times over, play the three heroines whose separate but tangentially related stories are adroitly woven together to form a rich tapestry further embellished by the supporting performances of Ed Harris, John C. Reilly, and Stephen Dillane. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, adapted for the screen by David Hare, the film’s separate threads all involve the book Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, about a woman whose slavish attention to the trivial details of planning a party mask the deep despair that plagues her mind. Borrowing the unconventional time frame from Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours takes place during one crucial day in the life of each of the three women.

First there is the story set in 1923 of the famously troubled bisexual authoress herself, Virginia Woolf (Kidman, sporting a prosthetic nose and an uncharacteristically plain wardrobe), beginning to write the novel while battling the depression and emotional instability that eventually drove her to commit suicide nearly 20 years later. Pampered by her loving husband (Dillane), attended by her staff of servants, and visited by her sister (Miranda Richardson) and her three children, Virginia remains distracted and emotionally unavailable to all, working out the morose details of her dark novel while languishing in what she sees as the suffocating setting of rural England.

The second story features Moore as Laura Brown, a disenchanted and pregnant housewife in 1951 Los Angeles who, despite the devotion of her husband (Reilly) and young son (Jack Rovello), cannot reconcile herself with the prospect of living out her life in the secure but emotionally vacant existence she has established. While reading Woolf’s novel, she begins to enact a desperate plan to extricate herself from the oppressive situation.

Thirdly, Streep plays Clarissa Vaughn, the lesbian caregiver and former lover of a gay writer named Richard (Harris) who is suffering from advanced AIDS in 2001 New York City. Clarissa, whose day is spent planning a party to celebrate his winning a prestigious poetry award, is given the nickname “Mrs. Dalloway” by the bitter and despondent Richard, since she remains blissfully intent on the minutiae of floral arrangements, hors d’oeuvres, and seating charts while ignoring everything else in her life, including her daughter (Claire Danes), her lover (Allison Janney), and Richard’s own imminent death.

Since it is such a well-known fact that Hollywood regularly fails to provide good roles for women, The Hours seems almost like an overindulgence, packing three excellent female performances into the same film. Still, I feel that the actors’ Academy Award nominations situation for this film is rather wacky: Kidman, who was nominated but did not win for her astounding part in Moulin Rouge last year, is singled out with a Best Actress nomination despite the fact that her part is no more demanding than either of her co-stars. Don’t tell anyone, but I think it’s the fake nose that clinched it. Moore is strangely nominated for Best Supporting Actress (she also received a Best Actress nod for Far From Heaven) even though her part carries equal weight in the narrative. Meanwhile Streep, who I feel does more “acting” than either of the other two, is nominated as Best Supporting Actress for her part in Adaptation, so it would seem her work here is unnoticed. Of course, the film is also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, screenplay, costumes, music...

Regardless of my long digression about Oscar nominations (aaaaaaah—it’s all politics), this film’s success lies not so much in any one of these three performances, but in director Daldry’s artful combination of them into the emotionally deep and satisfying final product. Daldry and his editor, Peter Boyle (who himself garnered an Oscar nod), took these three seemingly unrelated stories and blended them together into a seamless and fascinating collage of experiences, all touched by the central element of Woolf’s book, all driven by its influence on them, all of whose connections reveal themselves slowly and with increasing clarity as the film unspools. I’m not usually a savvy enough moviegoer to be struck by the way a movie is edited, but here it is clearly a major part of the film’s success, skipping back and forth between the three story threads with a dizzying, gazelle-like agility that makes it appear as if they are all happening simultaneously even though they are decades apart. Of course the film’s immersive scenic quality (cinematography by Seamus McGarvey) is another essential element, particularly in the 1920s section, where the beauty of the pastoral English countryside makes Kidman’s part all the more challenging, forcing her to convey to us the desperation she feels in this doctor-ordered prison paradise.

The Hours is a richly valuable opportunity to see immense talent at work, on both sides of the camera. Stop planning parties and spend a few hours to see it. ****½

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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