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Lit Up

A Crack Cast and Creative Team Create a Luminous Hours

Flower Print: Nicole Kidman (right) essays literary icon Virgina Woolf in The Hours.

By Luisa F. Ribeiro | Posted

Trapped in lives that on the surface appear to be ideal, three disparate women in different places and times experience interweaving emotional turning points in the moving and superb film The Hours. Based on what has repeatedly and appropriately been called an "unfilmable" novel by Michael Cunningham, adapted by British playwright David Hare, and brought to luminous life by fellow countryman Stephen Daldry (Billy Ellliot), the film conveys with staggering accuracy and courage the inner struggle of each woman to define and take control of her life--and, by frequently controversial means--to celebrate it.

Cunningham's novel, an homage to British modernist writer Virginia Woolf, audaciously presents a story centered around the real-life Woolf and two fictional characters. Hare's fluid adaptation builds upon Cunningham's interior monologues to create dramatic scenes yet remains remarkably faithful to the book and its tone, which reverently mirrors Woolf's style.

On a day in 1923 England, the brilliant but depression-prone Woolf (an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman) begins an outline for her fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway, which centers around a single day in the life of socialite Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares to throw a party. Resisting the well-meaning overprotection of her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane), and the blithe evasions of her sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson), Woolf grapples with her own fears of returning madness and focuses on creating not only a significant literary character but the perfect expression of the meaning of a woman's life.

In modern-day New York, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a successful book editor living with her longtime female companion (Allison Janney), prepares for an elaborate party for her best friend and former lover, Richard (Ed Harris), a poet dying of AIDS. Outwardly bright and upbeat, this modern-day "Mrs. Dalloway"'s obsession with the party details becomes a cover, allowing her to avoid what Richard accurately pegs as the "silence" of her own life.

In 1949 Los Angeles, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a suburban housewife stifled by the inescapable demands of her daily role as wife and mother, repeatedly attempts to avoid her troubles by hiding in the pages of a novel--Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Nearly paralyzed by an overwhelming depression, Laura can barely rise to greet the day and is weighed down all the more by the disturbing, watchful gaze of her young son Ritchie (Jack Rovello).

The lives of the three women spiritually intersect and intertwine throughout the day as each finds herself heading toward crucial junctures and decisions that will forever change her future. While Woolf, wrestling with her artistic and emotional demons anchors the story (her harrowing 1941 suicide by drowning brackets the film), it is Laura, drowning in unarticulated anguish, whose story line haunts the most. Determined to accomplish the simple task of baking a cake for her cheerful husband (John C. Reilly), Laura is so far removed from the Betty Crocker ideal and utterly lost that she resembles a walking corpse. Yet it is she who provides the film with its big twist, taking the most far-reaching action of all the characters and, in so doing, providing an uncomfortable but real glimpse of women rarely acknowledged in books, much less films.

Moore has the least physically demanding role of the three leads and so centers her performance in her eyes, which, despite her assuming a scary forced cheerfulness, remain utterly dead, flickering to life only briefly when scanning the pages of her book or after sharing an unexpected intimacy with a neighbor (Toni Collette, burbling perfect '50s charm). Moore's brilliantly modulated performance brings compassion and understanding to a singularly devastating character.

Kidman gives Moore whopping competition with her portrayal of Woolf, an odd mix of gawkiness and grace, humor and bathos, madness and sanity. Far from seeking refuge in the gimmicks of a false nose, untidy wigs, and baggy clothing, Kidman clearly relishes what could easily have been a daunting role of one of literature's most towering figures. Employing a low, clipped British voice (the Australian actress listened to recordings of Woolf to emulate her and learned to write right-handed for her many writing scenes), and constantly fiddling with a self-rolled cigarette while peering about with an unexpected twinkle, Kidman imbues Woolf with electrifying reality and clarity as the author fights to realize her creativity and individuality.

Using smart cutting and overlapping dialogue, Daldry illustrates Woolf's unique echoing structure (filtered through Cunningham and Hare), linking the stories so that the three women often appear expectant, as if straining to catch some sage advice from one of the others. Philip Glass (whose movie music often verges on grating) manages restraint in a haunting score that, playing on the film's theme of water, trickles relentlessly, occasionally cascading with appropriate muscle. All creative forces converge to help make The Hours that Hollywood rarity--an adult film, daring to display adult emotions.

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