M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

"A woman's whole life in a single day; and in that day, her whole life." So begins The Hours, Stephen Daldry's prismatic contemplation on female isolation that leaps across books, continents, and time itself. Depicting a day in the life of three separate women, all of whom are connected in some way to Virginia Woolf's seminal novel Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours is at once literary and intensely cinematic. Based on the novel of the same name by Michael Cunningham, it weaves its divergent stories into a tripartite structure that reinforces and reflects itself. At the very least, The Hours represents a considerable achievement in literary adaptation, bringing to the screen what many believed was an unfilmable novel. The screenplay (by playwright David Hare) unpacks the book's alternating chapters and creates an amniotic pool in which plots, characters, and settings swim together in fluid unity. If initially confusing, the movie soon reveals itself to be organically and meticulously composed; like a great work of architecture, it renders its own complexities breathtakingly clear.

The Hours sets its ripple effects in motion through a succinct riff on Woolf's most famous opening sentence: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." In 1920's England, a young Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) tentatively scribbles these words on paper; thirty years in the future, Los Angeles housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) reads these same words as she prepares for the morning; and in present day New York, a modern day Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), calls to her sleeping lover that, indeed, she will buy the flowers herself. Daldry's pan-temporal crosscutting has an intuitive feel. Characters are linked at first by physical details -- ringing alarm clocks, mirror-reflected gazes -- and then by deeper thematic parallels. Streep's Clarissa, like the Clarissa Dalloway in Woolf's novel, is throwing a party for an invalid friend. As she goes about her day buying flowers, preparing food, and checking in on her housebound guest of honor, a celebrated writer (Ed Harris) in the final stages of AIDS, the movie continually flips back to Kidman's Woolf as she wrestles with the plot of her burgeoning novel, uncertain as to who, if anyone, will die in the end. Indeed, certain parts of the movie seem to be writing and, in some cases, re-writing other parts. This potentially precious reflexivity is diffused through a heightened self-awareness: Harris' addled writer warmly addresses Streep's Clarissa as Mrs. Dalloway, an endearment that she does not resist.

Bookended by eerily calm visions of suicide, The Hours is above all a journey into a woman's dark emotional waters. In the course of their parallel days, all three characters experience a sudden unhinging that instigates inchoate soul-searching and inexplicable rivers of tears. "I seem to have fallen out of time," Clarissa says at one point, and she could be speaking on behalf of her spiritual sisters. Increasingly detached from reality, they each seek some kind of liberation from the men who define their lives. Kidman's Woolf comes the closest to mounting a sustained confrontation by leading her husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) on a series of emotional roller coasters and shouting matches. From the verdant isolation of her suburban Richmond estate, where she is recovering from a recurring bout of insanity, Woolf longs for the bustle of London but knows that the excitement will provoke her mental state. And yet, without the city, she cannot write. Kidman, unrecognizable under prosthetic make-up, invests Woolf with a sense of superiority on the one hand, and a pathological social insecurity on the other. When she glares at her maids, it is with a writer's contempt for the mundane and the practical; yet when she walks in public, she avoids all eye contact and mumbles quietly to herself.

Under Stephen Daldry's surprisingly sensitive direction (he previously helmed the cloying Billy Elliot), the breakdowns that his characters suffer are less full-blown mental afflictions than a shared disaffection from the world. Their simultaneous withdrawals, at once violent and mute, unify them under a common act of defiance. Daldry and Hare wisely avoid psychoanalyzing their characters. Staunchly preferring mystery over exposition, they generate something close to a literary spirituality. The Hours, unlike Neil LaBute's Possession, takes an anti-romantic view of literature, casting its bookish women as quasi-chaste priestesses. In many ways, Julianne Moore's Laura Brown acts as the trinity's unlucky middle sister, embodying elements of Clarissa's bourgeois fragility and Woolf's latent psychosis. Ensconced in '50s domesticity, Laura is planning a birthday party for her husband (John C. Reilly) but something is preventing her from performing such ordinary tasks as baking a cake. Mrs. Dalloway silently beckons her, while her spotless house creates the visual equivalent of white noise. For Laura, the male gaze is especially persecutory, from her husband's oppressively benign grin to the accusatory stares of her five-year old son, who seems to be reading her thoughts. Moore's edifice of smiling maternity is even more uncanny than her Far From Heaven porcelain doll. As her exterior crumbles, Laura channels both Woolf and Clarissa -- author and creation -- becoming, in effect, an oracle of suicidal despair.

If The Hours can feel humorless at times, it studiously avoids the melodramatic. Hare's neat triangulation of lives gives the movie an almost mathematical formality while Philip Glass' score suggests the depths of human emotion as rendered by a computer. Grounded in the hum of everyday life, the movie nevertheless tends towards the transcendent and the abstract. As its literary sisterhood evolves gradually into a sapphic mysticism, each character experiences a moment of sexual confusion: Woolf kisses her sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson) in an impromptu expression of hysteria and tenderness; Laura shares a similar moment with a neighbor (Toni Collette) who has just revealed her illness; Clarissa, meanwhile, lives with her partner (Allison Janney) but can't stop thinking about the time when, as a young woman, she was in love with Harris' dashing writer. As the embodiment of everything her predecessors wished to be -- independent, cosmopolitan, and free from men -- Clarissa is nevertheless an emotional wreck. She suspects she has wasted her life, placing her own needs on indefinite pause to take care of others. When she stares out the window of her West Village apartment, she is as much a still-life as her namesake -- intricate, picturesque, but ultimately inert. Wearing her intelligence like old pajamas, Streep turns this paralysis into an opportunity for contemplation. She infuses Clarissa with self-effacing modesty and a near-debilitating level of self-perception, which, when combined, render her hopelessly confused and helplessly vulnerable.

Though the filmmakers have inevitably softened the novel's gay-lit edge, The Hours remains faithful to Cunningham's unsettling ambiguity. The nominal happy endings are anything but conclusive, inviting all sorts of speculation as to how tomorrow and the day after will play out. Clarissa, like Virginia Woolf and Laura Brown before her, is essentially a cipher -- the feminine mystique incarnate. If their cumulative strangeness precludes most attempts at empathy, The Hours ultimately bridges the chasm with an epilogue that ties its multi-threaded narrative together. These final scenes, shot almost entirely in close-ups, balance halting confession with stunned silence; the result is like an extended trance. Daldry (with the expert aid of editor Peter Boyle) never explains away the movie's enigmatic pull, wisely leaving certain strands to float freely. Despite its Oscar-bait scent and its surfeit of industry talent both onscreen and off, The Hours still manages to be daringly experimental. Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway concludes with a set of questions: "What is this terror? What is this ecstasy?" "It is Clarissa," Woolf answers. And it is The Hours, too.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]

Distributor Web site: Paramount Pictures
Movie Web site: The Hours



Photo credits: © 2002 Paramount Pictures, Inc. All rights reserved.