There is much to admire about “The Hours,” a literary film adapted from the 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Michael Cunningham. It is a story with a scope that takes on various layers of narrative; an ambitious project that touches on the profundity of our daily lives, the beauty of the mundane and the frustration that stirs – sometimes dangerously – in the minds of creative people. Yet it is hard to say with any amount of certainty what, exactly, the film is actually about.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Paramount and Miramax
Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep: Three women now forever linked by “Mrs. Dalloway” and a prosthetic nose.

Despite the three plots that bleed into each other and the three very different characters occupying three separate days of the 20th century, the film (and, too, the book) seems, above all, to be about the woman as an artist. “The Hours” is, in the simplest terms, a product of Michael Cunningham’s devotion to the writer who, along with Joyce, turned the banality of everyday life into the stuff of fiction. In that sense, the film is nothing more or less than a love-letter to Virginia Woolf.

“The Hours” mines the depths of Woolf’s 1923 classic “Mrs. Dalloway,” scooping it out and turning the pulp into a sort of foundation for an exploration of what Woolf and her work have meant to us. It seems to raise the question of why we love her so fiercely, why we accept both her personal life and her work as iconic to both feminism and fiction. The movie, and the characters, seem to be in love with Woolf, whether they know it or not. It is easy to have a crush on Virginia Woolf, and her savage magnetism drives the film even when the other characters are onscreen.

The film opens in 1923 with Woolf beginning to write “Mrs. Dalloway,” arguably her greatest book. Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is, at this point in her life, living in placid Richmond, England, trying to escape the bouts of mental illness that seem to afflict her when she stays too long in London.

In the suburbs of 1950’s Los Angeles, we meet depressed, pregnant housewife and mother Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) as she struggles to bake a cake for her WWII vet-husband’s (John C. Reilly) birthday. Laura’s pains to create the perfect sphere of domesticity are punctuated by her retreats into “Mrs. Dalloway,” which she reads with increasing hunger as the day progresses.

The third story is about a modern day Mrs. Dalloway; Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), a woman dubbed so by her ex-lover Richard (Ed Harris), both of whom reside in Greenwich Village. Clarissa, as she plans a party for Richard at the home she shares with her lover Sally (Allison Janney, “The West Wing”), is held taut between her love of life and a crushing sense of regret for all the loves and memories she has had, yet will never live through again.

The symmetry of the three storylines is breathtaking. Each is joined, at its core, by its relationship to “Mrs. Dalloway,” yet the three characters also echo and replicate one another’s feelings of alienation, depression and appetite for human connection.

In a dramatic departure from the uplifting realism of his last film, “Billy Elliott,” director Stephen Daldry approaches “The Hours” with thoughtfulness and grace. David Hare’s screenplay is not a masterpiece, but its faithfulness to Cunningham’s book and its brave attempt to translate Cunningham’s difficult style into workable cinematic form is admirable.

One of the major problems “The Hours” faces is that act of translation, since the novel’s story is told almost entirely through interior monologue, and the film would only be able to replicate that type of narration with voice-over. Hare veers away from such formulaic writing, steering clear also of flashback (another large aspect of the novel). The interesting thing here is that the film is faithful to the novel, but it uses entirely different methods to move the plot forward.

The stand-in for interior monologue turns out to be the fine performances of Streep, Moore and especially Kidman, as well as the excellent supporting cast. Streep’s tiniest gestures, such as the way she cooks with fierceness, relay what is going on in her mind in a manner that approaches the thoroughness of Cunningham’s prose. Moore is her usual, brilliant self, so sensitive that she seems to have turned her fragility into a desperate energy that disturbs others, including her four-year-old son Richie.

Kidman is fascinating as Woolf. Rendered nearly unrecognizable due to a prosthetic nose, Kidman is still too beautiful to bare much honest resemblance to the strange, harsh face of the real Woolf. Kidman’s acting, however, captures Woolf’s quiet rage impressively. In her posture and the deepness her voice takes on, we sense the steel that kept Woolf writing in even her darkest moments.

“The Hours” is a powerful and nuanced film, but it is no substitute for the book. The film is something to admire; the book is something to fall in love with. There were many changes made in the shift from novel to film, one of the largest being that, in the novel, the centerpiece is Clarissa Vaughn, yet the film uses Woolf as an anchor. This, in addition to the stylized way the 1950s sequences are shot, the sensitivity of the camerawork and the haunting performances of John C. Reilly and others, let the film take on a shade that distinguishes it from the book in a worthy way.

Kidman portrays a Woolf who knows that there is much at stake when we make the choice to “look life in the face.” That challenge is what drives the three women at the film’s core, and it is their strenuous attempt to push forward that makes “The Hours” so worthwhile.

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