THE HOURS begins with a suicide, a famous one at that. Virginia Woolf with a fierce deliberateness puts a heavy stone in her pocket and walks into a river. We see her head duck silently into the water and then her body floating delicately away, pulled by the current with a gentle urgency. By the end of THE HOURS, the import of that image will have changed from madness to sanity, a rational reaction to the turn her mind is taking, a mind made mad by a choice Woolf made to live rather than whither away.
The screenplay by David Hare from the book by Michael Cunningham seamlessly and poetically weaves together one individual day in each of these womens very different and very similar lives, a day that will change everything for them. It focuses on common touchstones, the act of waking up, a vase of flowers, a visitor, an inappropriate kiss, and by doing so we are primed to see the story arcs that eerily echo across the 80 or so years covered as they each wake up to the reality of their lives and make choices that show courage in situations for which the right answer is just as painful as the wrong one.
The conceit is Woolf spinning the tale of her novel Mrs Dalloway. As she creates the characters, the situation of their lives and of the life of Woolf and her long-suffering husband, Leonard, resonate with the lives of Laura, a Los Angeles housewife smothered by 1950s suburbia and trapped in a suffocating marriage, and with Clarissa, an editor caught up in the literary life of modern New York and dubbed Mrs. Dalloway by Richard, a dying poet and her lifelong friend.
The three actresses who play out these scenarios are at the top of their game. All but unrecognizable behind a prosthetic nose of Woolf’s prodigious proportions, Nicole Kidman’s only regret about this performance should be that she will be hard-pressed to top it. Portraying a firebrand intellect, she has never been more intense than she is here. When Woolf says that she has the first line of her new book, Kidman delivers that statement with all the portent of Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount. And for Woolf, high-strung, anorexic, and living in the world but never of it, it probably had that sort of religious overtones.
Julianne Moore as Laura is a fragile doll, worshipped by a solid but uninspiring husband (John C. Reilly in what has become his signature role) whom she tries to love, and a wide-eyed, too wise son who cannot save her from herself. With limp hair and a sad smile that is infinitely more heart-rending than tears could ever be, she reads Mrs. Dalloway, identifying too closely, too dangerously with the title character. The pain her life is palpable, making even baking a cake an exercise in self-flagellation witnessed by her son who keeps wary, hopeful eye on her, sensing better than either of his parents the depths to which Laura has sunk emotionally. Each movement she makes has the defeated tentativeness of someone whos lost all control of her situation.
In the present, Meryl Streep incarnates the sophisticated big-city woman, manically kinetic and seemingly in control as she, like the Mrs. Dalloway of the novel, plans a party for Richard. But the edge in her voice, the briskness of her step is more about getting through the day, not enjoying it. When she suddenly, almost violently tries to articulate the emptiness at the core of her life to Richards ex-lover (Jeff Daniels), who shows up on her doorstep unexpectedly, her confession is accompanied by the clatter bracelets, stacked along each of her arms, the sound distracting us the way caring for Richard (a skeletal Ed Harris) has distracted her from caring for her own life, convincing her that all true happiness is in the past despite a loving partner (Alison Janey, wry and warm), a terrific daughter (Claire Danes) and a dream job.
THE HOURS is a breathtaking experience. And thats the problem with trying to write review of it. A review is of necessity a précis, a smattering of impressions, a dissection of the action, and an opinion. THE HOURS defies such limitations. This is an astonishingly rich and complex film of exquisite beauty, masterfully conceived and brilliantly executed. The bottom line, literally and figuratively, is that thats all you need to know.