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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

To Mrs. Dalloway, wherever she is

The Hours

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: StephenDaldry
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

No movie in recent years has captured the state of being a woman with such perceptive elegance as "The Hours." Over the course of a single day, three women in three different eras -- novelist Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) in 1923, housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) in 1951 and editor Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) in 2001 -- show us their longings, their contradictions and their acute sense of being stifled and trapped.

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Nicole Kidman
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Julianne Moore
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Meryl Streep

But more than just a feminist treatise, "The Hours" is historical and social commentary delivered from personal viewpoints. The usual rage is eliminated. Instead, this rich tale leaves a bittersweet aftertaste, like luxurious chocolate.

In an age where gender is increasingly confused or rendered meaningless, "The Hours" speaks to us of an experience still largely the preserve of women -- namely, the thwarting of aspirations and desires.

In 1923, Woolf, a celebrated novelist and, as her husband says, quite possibly "the most intelligent woman in England," struggles to find a balance between her creative impulses and the daily tasks of maintaining a personal life and managing a household. Three decades later, a housewife in a Los Angeles suburb is suffocated by her comfortable but alienating daily existence with her husband and child. And in present-day New York, a woman finds that her long years of personal freedom and professional success still haven't brought the happiness she had expected for herself at the age of 18.

Directed by Stephen Daldry, "The Hours" is a crystalline film fashioned from Michael Cunningham's complex and fascinating book of the same title. This won the Pulitzer Prize and was itself inspired by Virginia Woolf's landmark creation, "Mrs. Dalloway." Cunningham's book is structured along lines almost identical to those of Woolf's novel -- both works track the events of a single day in their characters' lives.

"The Hours" dips into -- and flits back and forth from -- "Mrs. Dalloway," re-enacting some of the scenes and details, recasting its narrative in more modern molds. In many ways, though, Mrs. Dalloway's day is surprisingly similar to that of Laura and Clarissa, reminding us that though history has done much to change the lives of women, some of their days remain essentially the same.

The thoughts and actions of 52-year-old Mrs. Dalloway in the 1920s, as she prepares for a lavish party, will seem familiar to many. Mrs. Dalloway's day begins with her stepping out to buy flowers for a lavish party she is throwing that night, and the story ends as some of her guests prepare to leave. In between, however, are moments of emotional truth and revelation: Mrs. Dalloway's old suitor turns up from India; her husband is invited to a luncheon without her; and she finds herself hating the older, dogmatic friend of her 18-year-old daughter. She muses on how life would have been different had she married the suitor (adventurous, reckless, romantic) instead of her husband (politically ambitious, successful) and concludes that she is better off though not necessarily happier.

The book is a celebration of the mundane as well as of women's secret, inner lives. In the movie, "Mrs. Dalloway" is deployed as a symbol of the yearning that churns beneath the exteriors (self-imposed and otherwise) that women assume to keep their worlds intact. So they chat with friends and family, plan meals and prepare for parties. And what is a party if not an exercise in convincing the world and themselves, that all is as well as could be?

Like Mrs. Dalloway, parties are the focus of the day for the three women: Mrs. Woolf throws a tea party for her visiting sister (Miranda Richardson) and children; Mrs. Brown spends her entire day prepping for her husband's (John C. Reilly) birthday; Ms. Vaughn buys armloads of flowers for a party she's giving to honor a gay poet friend (Ed Harris). Underneath their actions swirls endless self-reflection, defined by despair and threatening to surface at any moment.

For many viewers, their discontent might be baffling, since none of these women (and it should be noted they are all well-off) have any outward cause for complaint. Mrs. Woolf has the unfailing support and loyalty of her long-suffering, well-meaning husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane). Mr. Brown is also devoted, willing to share housework when he senses that Laura is tired. Clarissa Vaughn is blessed with a loving, understanding partner, Sally (Allison Janney). Yet, the dissatisfactions and longings are there, the unspoken desires for (echoing Mrs. Dalloway) what might have been.

It's hard to single out a performance since all of them are brilliant and Daldry wisely distributes the screen time so that all the characters become memorable. But it's Nicole Kidman who stands out with her portrayal of Woolf, a role unlike anything she's done thus far. Her features altered beyond recognition by thick matte makeup and a prosthetic nose, and her voice sunk into a gloomy whisper, she's every inch the literary genius trapped in the body of a domestic misfit.

In "The Hours," it's never about what happens next, but what's happening now in the minds of these women. Daldry attempts to capture each fleeting feeling that flickers over their faces, stirring in them inexplicable urges and moments of passionate upheaval. He's clearly fascinated, and just as obsessed with his characters as they are with themselves. As a result, the relationship between his camera and the women is one of sublime intimacy.

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