The film begins with the 1941 suicide of Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman, deglamorized and unrecognizable) and then jumps ahead 10 years to sunny, hopeful postwar Los Angeles, where Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is reading "Mrs. Dalloway"--and being transformed by it. Pregnant with her second child, Laura is lost in the tract-development paradise of manicured lawns and oversize rooms. She considers all of it, herself included, the veterans' reward for their ordeal, and approaches such tasks as the baking of a cake with a vague, sad spaciness that pains and alarms her young son (Jack Rovello). Though a good, earnest man, her husband (John C. Reilly) is incapable of fulfilling or even touching Laura. Her day begins with a shattering confrontation with a pathologically cheery neighbor (Toni Collette) and proceeds through events that will have resonance for years to come.
The most stylized visually of the three stories, this center panel of the triptych unfolds within the constraints and possibilities of mid-century America, beneath the oppressive light of a big, empty sky. Moore conveys Laura's fragility, despair and growing resolve as she nears an irrevocable decision, and the sense of dread is heightened by Philip Glass' effective score.
In a different type of suburb, rural 1923 Richmond, outside London, Woolf and her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane), run a press at their home, Hogarth House, where they've come in hopes that the country will cure, or at least alleviate, Virginia's depressions. She's beginning to write "Mrs. Dalloway" and is consumed with its conception, grappling with plot and character every waking hour. In one of the strongest depictions of the creative process to be put to film, Kidman captures the fire and single-mindedness of the writer without resorting to tormented-artist clichés.
Virginia's story resonates in 2001 Manhattan, where Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a book editor, consummate hostess and modern-day Mrs. Dalloway, prepares a lavish party for Richard (Ed Harris), a writer who is about to receive a major prize, and who is dying of AIDS. Though Clarissa is in a long-term relationship with Sally (Allison Janney), her emotional life revolves around Richard. With an aching romanticism, they both hold on to the Cape Cod summer 30 years earlier when they were lovers. But Richard, half-deranged by illness and its myriad treatments yet maintaining a terrible, burning clarity, is less than eager to receive his tribute, having reached a decision that will change Clarissa's life.
Although most often lauded for her work in period films, Streep excels at contemporary American roles ("Kramer vs. Kramer," "Silkwood") and here delivers a delicate, heartrending portrait of a woman coming undone before reaching a profound understanding about herself and the choices she's made.
In his second feature, director Stephen Daldry exhibits the same talent for eliciting fine performances that he did in "Billy Elliot," but without resorting to the heavy-handedness that marred that film. Daldry's theatre background and use of extensive rehearsals pay off with characters who feel lived-in and who can communicate through emotional shorthand. "The Hours" also is a significant advance for him cinematically, with the work of d.p. Seamus McGarvey, production designer Maria Djurkovic and costume designer Ann Roth providing strong contributions in defining as well as uniting the three periods.
The film deftly builds a sense of synchronicity and connectedness through parallel moments, gestures and plot points: the buying of flowers, brushing of hair, the early-arriving guest and, most tellingly, a kiss that, as it echoes through the three stories, evolves from an expression of madness to one of yearning to an affirmation of love. Hare and Daldry's fidelity to the fine source material is inspired rather than overly literal and, like Cunningham's novel, embodies themes from "Mrs. Dalloway" and Woolf's work as a whole with a convincing urgency. "The Hours" is a beautiful meditation on the life force and redemptive power of literature--for writers and readers alike--and on what it means to be fully alive, navigating the rocky terrain between vision and execution. Starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Toni Collette, Stephen Dillane, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, John C. Reilly, Miranda Richardson and Eileen Atkins. Directed by Stephen Daldry. Written by David Hare. Produced by Scott Rudin and Robert Fox. A Paramount release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some disturbing images and brief language. Running time: 114 min