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'The Hours'

'The Hours' pass, deep in thought

Friday, January 17, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Before it even flickered to life on the screen, "The Hours" was famous for the fake nose Nicole Kidman donned, rendering her almost unrecognizable.

 
 
'THE HOURS'

RATING: PG-13 for thematic elements, some disturbing images and brief language

STARRING: Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep

DIRECTOR: Stephen Daldry

WEB SITE: www.thehoursmovie.com

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Her outer trappings as Virginia Woolf -- mousy brown hair, shapeless dresses -- aren't as important as her ability to dim the inner light that burned so brightly in movies such as "Moulin Rouge" and "Batman Forever." It's not just the halo of red curls that are missing; the dazzle has been doused.

Kidman is just one third of the terrific trio in "The Hours," an adaptation of Michael Cunningham's prize-winning novel that intertwines the stories of three unrelated but spiritually linked women. In a world where women are (here I go again) often confined to playing the pickpocket girlfriend or the aging hippie who goes bravely into the hot tub naked, "The Hours" provides one of the strongest showcases for actresses in years.

Their characters grapple with the impulses to live and die, to be able to recognize and embrace happiness. The need to nurture competes with the need to unshackle themselves from society's obligations and expectations. Sometimes they succumb to their own dark moods; sometimes they are forced to witness the descent of others.

Kidman plays Woolf, exiled from her beloved London due to health problems and just starting to write what will become her celebrated novel titled "Mrs. Dalloway." Julianne Moore is Laura Brown, a 1950s Los Angeles suburban housewife who is trying to escape from her outwardly perfect but inwardly stultifying life by reading "Mrs. Dalloway." In almost every way, she is a reader, an observer of her own life.

And Meryl Streep is Clarissa Vaughan, a New York book editor who has been given the nickname of Mrs. Dalloway by a longtime friend named Richard (Ed Harris) now dying of AIDS. She, like Clarissa Dalloway, is planning a party and heading out as the movie opens to buy the flowers. This Clarissa, instead of wondering about a long-ago kiss with a girlfriend, shares her bed with a woman named Sally (Allison Janney from "The West Wing").

The story, adapted by David Hare, retains the lyrical, loose rhythm of the book. Like gentle waves, it moves from woman to woman and woman and then back again without ever proving jarring. A score by Philip Glass and repetitive images provide bridges from one era to the next. The women are, successively, shown in bed or twirling their hair or shunning the breakfast their husbands urge them to consume.

Flowers, water, eggs, books and cigarettes appear and reappear as Woolf struggles with her writing, her black depression, her servants and her visiting sister (whose world is bursting with life and children), and Laura tries to muster the energy and enthusiasm to tend to her son and celebrate her husband's birthday. Clarissa is throwing Richard a party in honor of a writing prize, although he cynically suggests it's for other unwelcome achievements.

Screenwriter Hare has suggested that, on one level, "The Hours" is a thriller, and it is. The movie gives and withholds information, forcing the watcher to figure out how A connects to B or C. And late in the movie, the "tumblers click," as Hare says, and those oh-so-subtle clues now make sense.

No one would ever call "The Hours" the feel-good movie of the season, unless they're a twisted lot, but it may be one of the finest acted movies. In addition to the three leading ladies, the supporting cast includes Harris as the haunted, ailing poet; John C. Reilly as a man who returned from World War II and married Laura; Miranda Richardson as Virginia's sister; Stephen Dillane as Virginia Woolf's husband; Jeff Daniels as one of Clarissa's party guests; and Toni Collette as one of the Browns' neighbors.

It's the nature of the novel and, therefore, movie to leave huge gaps of time unexplained, and that proves frustrating. The book has a bit more about Clarissa's world but not as much as you might hope. I saw the film and then sought out the book, and I was glad to have experienced them in that order.

Still, "The Hours" is sensitively directed by Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot"), successfully brought to the screen by Hare and alive with the sorts of performances that don't often come our way. And it's flush with questions about how they, and we, pass the hours.


Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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