Cunningham's novel tells simultaneous stories of three women in different times and places. In 1923, in a country home not far from London, the writer Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) lives with her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane), who has taken her from the city, on doctor's advice, to arrest the suicidal melancholy that would overtake her some years later. She's creatively blocked, until she tells Leonard, "I believe I may have a first sentence." And so she begins Mrs. Dalloway, the story of a life told all in one day as its eponymous heroine prepares her festive annual soirÃ©e, which is to take place that evening.
Meanwhile, in 1951, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a pregnant California housewife with a 4-year-old son, tries to bake a surprise birthday cake for her husband (John C. Reilly) while stealing time to read Mrs. Dalloway, which allows her to dream. Her neighbor Kitty (Toni Collette) drops by to mention that she can probably never have children. They cry a little. They kiss passionately. And then, Laura leaves her weeping son with a babysitter and tries to run away.
Finally, it's 2001, and New York book editor Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) -- who shares Mrs. Dalloway's first name -- prepares food for a party that evening to honor her dearest friend, Richard (Ed Harris), a decent poet (and unreadable novelist) in the end stages of AIDS. They were lovers years ago, before each gave in to same-sex desire. Now Clarissa has a tolerant longtime partner (Allison Janney), a sage in vitro daughter (Claire Danes), and a hole in her heart that can be filled only by Richard, who, in the face of Clarissa's pleadings to go on living, only wants to be left alone to die.
Cunningham's novel moves back and forth between these stories, exploring the ways in which each woman seeks some degree of release from the fetters of her time and circumstance. For Woolf, it is English society and mental illness. For Laura, it's pre-fab suburban convention and hidden lesbian desire. And for the whiny, privileged Clarissa, it's nothing more complicated than the self-absorption of living without someone you love, which makes her the one character in Daldry's film that you'll rightfully dislike.
The British playwright David Hare, who adapted Cunningham's book, follows its time-shifting narrative structure, which Daldry (Billy Elliot) then uses to bludgeon us with audio-visual cues, as if he fears we'll miss how the stories and themes connect. They really should have reassembled the novel chronologically, telling one story at a time. At least that would have allowed us the challenge and pleasure of making our own connections.
At moments here and there, The Hours stuns you with an insight about its unifying themes of love, death and letting go. Woolf's story resonates most because her life and her suicide (eloquently presented by Daldry) are real. Or maybe it's Laura's that resonates, because so many people have mothers or grandmothers who lived her life. Clarissa's does not, and hopefully, that's the point: to show how a solipsistic modern woman fails to appreciate the freedom won for her by her dead ancestors. And yet, I doubt that's what the filmmakers had in mind.
With weighty themes so easy to discern -- how do we love? how do we cope? how do we say goodbye? how does the past influence the present? -- we're pretty much left with a movie that encourages you to notice its parts more than the whole. The Philip Glass musical score reinforces the notion that life isn't one thing after another but rather the same thing over and over, and Maria Djurkovic's luscious production design creates an authentic sense of place in each era: the sunny symmetry of Laura's California tract housing, the damp brownstone winter of Clarissa's Manhattan, the bucolic despair of Woolf's English countryside.
The Hours is such a brooding piece that its actors barely have any room of their own. Streep, groping to find her light again in contemporary New York women (she plays another one in Adaptation), ambles through the dreary Clarissa: She manages a few affecting moments of ordinary sadness, but her work shows no imagination. Harris is heartbreaking as the gaunt, stumbling, disillusioned Richard, a virtual icon of an especially horrifying disease. The lachrymose Moore, an acquired taste all over again in each of her movies, builds to a discreetly touching finale after a characteristically stilted start.
Finally, there's Kidman, who disappears into Virginia Woolf, and not just because of her makeup. Who would have imagined -- after the gaudy shrillness of Moulin Rouge or the wooden eroticism of Eyes Wide Shut -- that this glorified movie star could slip into a brittle English accent and vivify a literary genius at the eerie dawn of her protracted self-extermination? In The Hours, Kidman's reticent scowl and narrow cagey eyes finally have authority, context and, perhaps best of all, cinematic appeal. * * 1/2