Love, death and poetry

Highly celebrated literary film The Hours is bolstered by its all-star cast

WHERE’S MOMMY? Julianne Moore is up for an Oscar for her performance as conflicted, suicidal ‘50s housewife Laura Brown in The Hours, based on the book by Michael Cunningham.

WHERE’S MOMMY? Julianne Moore is up for an Oscar for her performance as conflicted, suicidal ‘50s housewife Laura Brown in The Hours, based on the book by Michael Cunningham.

The Hours
Starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Rated PG-13, Tinseltown.
Rated 4.0

The Hours comes to us oozing so much prestige (great cast, Virginia Woolf, prize-winning novel, etc.) that it may be a bit of a shock to discover the thing is a little less than perfect. But even with assorted imperfections and a disconcerting unevenness, this is an unusually interesting film with an impressive array of rewards for attentive viewers.

Based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and adapted for the screen by the esteemed British playwright David Hare, the film has three overlapping stories to tell about three different women, each from a different part of the 20th century and each played by a major actress. In novel and film alike, the three stories are intertwined via a network of echoes and resemblances and the occasional direct link.

Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), in England in 1923, is struggling with ennui and starting to write the novel that would become a classic, Mrs. Dalloway; Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a suburban California housewife and mother in 1951, is contemplating suicide and reading Mrs. Dalloway; Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), a Mrs. Dalloway-like literary agent in contemporary New York, is preparing a party for a poet and friend (Ed Harris) who is dying of AIDS.

With all of this framed by the day in 1941 in which Woolf took her own life, impending death and thoughts of suicide form the darkest of the currents running through the action. But The Hours is warmer and more luminous and vivacious than that might make you think, and the large and small ways in which the three storylines rhyme and reverberate with each other generate several moments of heartening exhilaration.

One of the special strengths of The Hours is that its take on these eminently modern identity crises engages a radically diverse set of problems, from workaday domesticity to existential anguish, with love and death and poetry in between, and yet never surrenders to the tidy resolutions that its parallelisms might seem to augur. And Cunningham’s layered structure of narrative montage may work even better in the film than it does in the novel.

Cunningham’s dialogue, however, too often has a wooden literary quality to it. Streep and Moore render their characters through brilliantly nuanced conversation, but Kidman and Stephen Dillane (as Leonard Woolf) as well as Harris’ poet strain under the burden of speeches in which they seem to be explaining things to the audience instead of talking to each other.

Director Stephen Daldry is up for an Oscar, but it looks to me as though the film succeeds in spite of his direction. The subtler the actor, the better his direction looks—thank you, Meryl Streep. But with some of the others, he seems to be directing scenes from a whole other movie—Allison Janney (as Clarissa’s lover) is in an Antonioni film; Toni Collette (as Laura’s friend Kitty) is mugging like she’s on Tennessee Williams’ hot tin roof; Ed Harris is an Edward Albee character auditioning, without hope, for Samuel Beckett.

But none of that is enough to kill the film. Streep is a marvel of delicate, mixed emotions; Moore is a quietly inspired enigma; and while Kidman is not a very persuasive incarnation of Virginia Woolf herself, she gives a genuinely haunting account of a strong, gifted woman dazed by the weaknesses within her own intensity.