Spend time with 'The Hours'

    In the highly dramatic film “”The Hours,”” director Stephen Daldry, successfully brings to life David Hare’s screenplay based on the elaborate novel by Michael Cunningham. The story follows the intertwined lives of three women from three different time periods — a writer, a housewife and an editor — who are all experiencing similar breakdowns as their fears and yearnings cause them to question the meanings of their lives.

    The film is primarily character-driven, focusing most of its attention on the inner turmoil of the lives of the three women and their response to it. In fact, each character’s life is fully represented in a single day, in which each one engages in her usual daily routine and is simultaneously forced to deal with feelings of depression that are gnawing at her. Thus, it suffices to say that without strong performances by the three lead actresses, the movie would not work terribly well. Fortunately, the actresses completely delve into the complexity of their characters, creating three intricately different personas, each filled with conflicting realistic emotions and with a vitality that drives the whole film.

    Leading the pack and serving as a backbone for the film is the author Virginia Woolf, portrayed with vivacity by a completely unrecognizable Nicole Kidman. Her story takes place in Sussex, England, during the 1920s and ends with the final shot of her suicide in 1941. During the 1920s, the author struggled with her own insanity while trying to write the novel “”Mrs. Dalloway,”” which would later become one of her most celebrated works. Kidman is dazzling as the strong, complicated Woolf, who fully realizes that she has a choice: either live a fuller life by feeding her creative talent at the expense of being pulled further into insanity, or lead a passive, uneventful, but longer life.

    Kidman successfully embodies Woolf not just physically — although the prosthetic nose, gray, dull wig, and the deep, seemingly uncaring, but at the same time meaningful voice certainly add to the overall effect — but mentally and emotionally as well. When she is deeply gazing toward the camera in what seems to be part highly intellectual, stimulating thought and part descent into what can only be defined as madness, Kidman perfectly captures an introverted writer who is fully unable to handle the world outside of her novels.

    In a strange sequence in which Woolf forces a passionate kiss upon her sister, Vanessa (Miranda Richardson, well-suited to the role of a mother who is stable and completely devoted to her three children), who comes for a visit from London, Kidman handles Woolf’s confused emotions with care. She makes Woolf’s gesture seem like a plea to be freed from the confines of the country home and from the insanity that causes her exclusion from London, where she creatively thrives but mentally disintegrates. Even in her relationship with her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane, solidly portraying a caring and devoted man who truly cares for his ailing wife), it is clear that she loves and respects him, but there is still a certain distance seemingly caused by her fragile mind.

    Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is a pregnant mother living in Los Angeles after World War II who in the process of reading the novel “”Mrs. Dalloway”” is inspired to drastically change her life. Moore brings humanity to Brown and provides an explanation for the character’s selfish and unfair actions. From the outset, it is obvious that Brown does not fully fit into her domestic position as homemaker and wife. Throughout her day — during which she tries to make a cake for her husband’s birthday, considers ending her life and talks about motherhood with a friend — her discontentment and disconnection with what is going on around her is very apparent. With subtle facial movements, Moore ideally latches on to the character’s longing, and her ultimate, desperate decision.

    The most poignant sequences, and probably the most difficult for Moore (who has three children of her own), are the interactions between Brown and her son Richie (Jack Rovello).

    The more Richie, who senses that there is something wrong with his mother, questions her love for him and tries to stay with her, the more she pushes him away while vocally trying to comfort him. These moments are quite disturbing, but at the same time brilliantly executed.

    The third woman is Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a modern version of Woolf’s character, Mrs. Dalloway, who lives in New York in 2001. Vaughan is furiously working to prepare a party for her friend Richard (Ed Harris), a great and difficult poet who is dying of AIDS. Vaughan also struggles with finding meaning in her life while she goes to purchase flowers; shares an intimate and tense conversation with Richard and Richard’s ex-boyfriend, Louis Waters (Jeff Daniels); and interacts with her live-in girlfriend, Sally Lester (Allison Janney), and her daughter, Julia (Claire Danes).

    Through Vaughan, Streep is able to create yet another varied character who is also questioning her life. During her long, strenuous day, the character suffers two over-the-top but understandable emotional breakdowns, which Streep displays with ease and makes completely fitting for the nervous, uptight persona she portrays.

    Harris stands out with his performance as a destructive, hard-to-deal-with genius poet who is himself struggling with inner demons while the end of his life nears. The actor seems to have found a niche playing brilliant, difficult artists (he also got rave reviews as the struggling painter Jackson Pollock in “”Pollock””).

    The connections between the three women are made clear in well-edited and flowing transition sequences, as well as during a marvelous revelatory sequence toward the end of the film when the characters somewhat come to terms with their yearnings.

    Overall, the film is a fantastic enterprise that is worth seeing because of the interesting philosophical questions that it raises, the powerful and moving way in which the dramatic issues are probed and explored, and the amazing cast that bring such intelligence, complexity and depth to their characters that it is compelling to watch them undergo their inner struggles.

    The Hours

    *****

    Starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore

    In theaters Jan. 17

    Rated PG-13

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