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by Chris Dashiell

The Hours comes to us wrapped in prestige. David Hare has adapted Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Stephen Daldry directs, with three major actresses starring. Its conception is provocative and unusual. Three women in three different historical periods - one of them the great writer Virginia Woolf - are presented subjectively, their thoughts and feelings reflecting the difficulties and challenges each face in a single day, and each life presenting parallels with the other two.

In 1923, Woolf (Nicole Kidman), is beginning to write the novel Mrs. Dalloway, while suffering the isolation of the country life in Richmond imposed on her for her own mental well-being. In 1951 Los Angeles, a pregnant housewife (Julianne Moore) makes, with the help of her young son, a birthday cake for her husband, while the mental suffocation of her life closes in. And in 2001, a stressed-out editor (Meryl Streep) prepares to host a party for her friend (Ed Harris), an award-winning poet dying of AIDS. Oh yes, and the housewife is reading Mrs. Dalloway, which happens to be the nickname the poet has given the editor.

This is one of those cases where I see what a film is trying to do; I admire the will to do it (rather than pretend to do it, while actually doing something else) - and yet, at the end, when I ask myself if it has succeeded, must reluctantly answer that it has not. The picture comes closest in the sections dealing with Woolf - greatly helped by strong, focused work from Kidman and also by Stephen Dillane as Leonard Woolf. Daldry, who is English, seems to have a more comfortable style in these English sequences. In the 1950s sections, the film tries for a sort of hypnotic sense of entrapment, but feels dangerously shallow. The modern sections with Streep are loose and talky and expository.

The film's main affliction is self-consciousness. This too-aware-of-itself literary quality - the direction not crisp enough, too many pauses between lines, reaction shots, characters repeating back to each other what was just said - translates into a feeling of unease with the material. To really focus on the subjective, you need to get into it with complete commitment - Daldry is tentative, and so is Hare's script. Maybe this is inherited from the Michael Cunningham novel, which I haven't read. In any case, I don't believe in Streep's character, or Jeff Daniels as the poet's old partner, and especially not in Ed Harris, who overacts and is the worst thing in the film.

A central theme of The Hours is suicide, and the choices we make relative to death, and life. It's a brave theme to tackle in a mainstream movie. But the whole strand involving Harris's character I found questionable - his despair is not explored, or adequately understood, but only dramatized in bold strokes, and it rings false. The struggle of Moore's character - despite some eerie water imagery in a pivotal scene - is too sketchy to make a real impression, and a scene involving Toni Collette as a neighbor is so clumsy that it's painful to watch.

There are good moments throughout the film, and the picture is never dishonest, but what I'm left with are the Viriginia Woolf sequences. I can't say that the script really grasps the complexity of Woolf as an artist or a thinker. It would have helped if Daldry had tried to realize the mood of the novel Mrs. Dalloway - perhaps he doesn't grasp it. But the picture touches something about Woolf that resonates, and Kidman is marvelous. For once an artist is portrayed as a fully active intellect, with all the peculiarity and power of an artist's commitment to her vision and craft.

The script doesn't give Streep much to work with except mannerisms and reactions. The modern sections feature people exhaling (in relief, or exasperation) and rolling their eyes and generally suffering, but the film needs to let us feel this through the style rather than through these dramatic tricks. (It was a bit of relief to have Clare Danes, as the editor's daughter, come on with some humor, although her character isn't developed either.) In addition, Philip Glass's music, while beautiful, is wrong for this kind of film. Everything is at a constant level of intensity, and that puts a demand on the script to live up to that, which it doesn't. A quieter score, with more variation, was in order.

So what is The Hours saying? Kidman's Woolf tells us in voiceover, at the end. Looking at life straight on, as it is, and then putting it aside. The importance of facing life without illusions. Another theme, an undercurrent, is the internal prisons that women have lived in as a counterpart to their external ones. There's also a strand about the brave and lonely work of the artist. (But how lonely, really? Would a poet of such prominence have so little human contact or friendship?) Also the theme of people whose lives pass by caring for others, when they need to care for themselves. I admire the willingness to deal with such things, and sometimes The Hours puts its hand on truths that are hard. But it needed more hardness in its method, more understanding, a clearer vision, to make something this ambitious succeed. How hard it is to keep self-consciousness from spoiling things! In a lesser effort such a concern barely enters into it. But here, you can see the wheels turning, and that's too bad.

©2003 Chris Dashiell