By William Wolf

THE HOURS  Send This Review to a Friend

In this complex, gratifying film using literary references to shed light on the emotional problems of three key women in different but interlocked time periods, actresses Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep give quality performances that stand out as among the very best of 2002. Stephen Daldry, directing from David Hare's beautifully written, well-integrated screenplay based on Michael Cuningham's novel, assures that his actresses have every opportunity to excel in their challenging roles.

The most impressive tour de force is by Kidman, in part because she comes across in a way we don't expect based on past work, as good as it has been. In the 1923 segment she plays author Virginia Woolf, and it takes a while to realize you are looking at Kidman, who, aided by a prosthetic nose, looks considerably like Woolf. Her performance is so very different from anything we've seen her in as she conveys the pain and mental illness in Woolf's life that led her to commit suicide by drowning. It is a striking portrait of the writer in her milieu as she is writing "Mrs. Dalloway," and the emotional conflicts she suffers, including her desperate desire to return to London from her country home. Stephen Dillane plays her husband Leonard, who grapples with her instabilities, and Miranda Richardson has a fine turn as Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell. Woolf experts familiar with the tangled relationships and the period should especially be interested in this take on her life and Kidman's performance.

Moore is Laura Brown in the 1951 portion. On the surface all would appear in order--a husband, a child, a comfortable existence. But Laura is aching with respect to the relationship to her devoted but oblivious husband Dan (John C. Reilly). Emotionally she hints of being sexually inclined toward her girlfriend Kitty (Toni Collette) and she finds it difficult to cope with being a mother to her adoring young son. One day Laura checks into a hotel with the contemplation of suicide. Through it all Moore gives a sharp portrait of a desperate woman trapped, and her reading "Mrs. Dalloway" adds further connective tissue.

The 2001 segment reveals Streep as Clarissa Vaughan, a contemporary version of Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway." She is nursing the dying Richard (Ed Harris in a superb acting job), her friend and former lover before he turned to men. He is increasingly bitter. When Richard's ex-lover Louis turns up--Jeff Daniels is excellent in the part--a crisis erupts and Clarrisa is compelled to deal with issues she thought had been put behind her. Clarrisa, who has a daughter (Claire Danes), has drawn happiness from her solid relationship with Sally (Allison Janney), and their love is what provides her balance.

The stories are smoothly intertwined and add up to a unified take on women who love women and are under pressure to deal with their emotional feelings and the complexities that haunt their lives. The story, enhanced by the performances, is unflaggingly absorbing as it makes a point about certain issues transcending time, and ultimately a specific link is established between the life of Laura Brown and Clarissa's Richard.

Philip Glass has provided a score that would seem to have the purpose of dramatically holding the film together, but while it may be to the taste of some, I found it annoying in its overwhelming rumbling insistence. It is as if the drama on screen were not enough and needed the extra push that music can provide. To me it detracted, as obsessive use of music often does. Others without my prejudice against heavy music scoring may well differ.

But in the case of "The Hours" what counts most is the combination of the stories, the powerful acting and the sensitivity to women who may live at different times but are similar with respect to identifiable aspects of their lives. A Miramax release.


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