As if fulfilling a destiny set down by a quill pen years earlier, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) decides out loud, and with an intensity that seizes the heart of the moment, that she’ll buy the flowers for the party herself. But this moment has already happened. Years before, a mentally bedeviled Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) begins the first line of her fourth novel, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Years afterward, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) decides to stay in bed to read a book about a woman about to give a party. Laura tells her friend Kitty that because Mrs. Dalloway is incredibly confident, everyone around her thinks she’s fine, but she isn’t.
The Hours (Woolf’s working title for Mrs. Dalloway) is based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that intertwines the lives of three women — in 1940s England, 1950s Los Angeles and new millennium New York City — along with the people, characters and circumstances that surround them. It’s a clever, cut-and-paste-postmodern text that occasionally comes off as contrived, striving to press all the right stylistic and artistic buttons. But married to visual imagery on the screen, the concept and structure of Cunningham’s work thrive. Thanks to a top-notch screenplay adaptation by David Hare, a complementary and propelling musical score by Philip Glass and British director Stephen Daldry’s (Eight, Billy Elliot) rhythmic, stimulating sense of balance between the life-threatening and the life-affirming, The Hours transforms the innocuous acts of buying flowers and baking a cake into possible preludes to catastrophe.
Mirroring Cunningham’s textual framework, Daldry slices scenes from the three women’s lives and fuses them into one momentous thrust. Clarissa fixes her hair — Virginia fastens up her hair. Virginia washes her face — Clarissa washes her face. Laura stays in bed to read Mrs. Dalloway — her husband opens the cupboard — Clarissa opens the drapes. She picks up a bunch of flowers — Laura’s husband grabs some flowers — Virginia’s maid arranges flowers in a vase. And on it goes. Because of the film’s unusual form, the usual sources of plot are not what feed the story’s impetus and drive. Instead, meaning lives in the cinematic synapses that link the three women together.
There are so many excellent performances by this dream cast. As Richard Brown, Ed Harris flows in and out of awareness as if he had absolutely no choice in the matter, his face continually traveling from an AIDS-crushing reality to a distant poetic land in a dying mind. John C. Reilly as Dan Brown, Toni Collette as Kitty and Miranda Richardson as Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell all contribute supremely to the film. And Jeff Daniels may have found his on-screen sexual calling from the look of his precious performance as Richard’s ex-lover Louis. But every great chain must have its weakest link.
For the most part, Kidman adequately bears the burden of a tortured writer, and each word she speaks is saturated with the weight of the ages. However, every once in a while a look shoots out of her eyes that screams, “I’ll get my way through seduction,” a look that has probably served her well as an actress blessed with blinding cuteness, but it sadly fails behind the harsh, prosthetic likeness of Woolf, an exterior that would find little use for such a look.
Granted, Kidman is in the toughest possible female company. Streep continues to earn her revered reputation as she pulls Clarissa off with a self-critical dignity that causes us to practically taste her emotional unraveling in the midst of the trivial. And as always, Moore enraptures each scene she’s party to. She seems to carry all the world’s joys and tragedies in each word that leaves her mouth, even when simply sifting cake flour with her son: “Isn’t it beautiful. Don’t you think it looks like snow?” Moore holds you on an expectant edge, ready and waiting for anything to happen. What does happen is a strange, interrelated metamorphosis of fiction to reality back to fiction.
Woolf is elevated to a godlike stature as her creation plays itself out, in one way or another, in the reality of actual people. At the same time, the heightened life of a celebrated writer is brought down to earth when placed beside, and made equal to, the mundane lives of two uneventful women. In turn, two sad, ordinary women with unimportant lives are lifted to the same level as great literature. All three scenarios are completely interdependent and, in the hands of Daldry, seem as if they’ve existed together always.
The Hours demonstrates how the thoughts and actions of one tragic artist can send an emotional ripple through time and space, sustaining a wake as unexpectedly potent and poignant as one troubled woman placing a rock in her coat pocket, and deciding to drown herself in a quiet river outside her country home.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.