Out of the garbage heap of January studio releases comes a most remarkable flower: "The Hours," a moving and beautiful meditation on the ways in which death tempts us, insinuates itself into our days, no matter who or where we are, or what era we live in. A translation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer prize-winning novel of 1998, with a screenplay by the English playwright David Hare and direction by Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot"), the film tells three stories, all related emotionally and each providing insight into the others.
The film begins with Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) loading heavy stones into her coat and walking into the river on the day in 1941 when she drowned herself. It then goes back almost twenty years to the day she started to write "Mrs. Dalloway," the novel about a woman remembering the one epiphany in her life, some years earlier, and realizing how unfulfilled her life is now. As she writes, she plans to have Mrs. Dalloway die in the novel, but then changes her mind. Someone else must die if Clarissa Dalloway is to live, she says.
The film moves to Los Angeles in 1951, where suburban housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is reading the novel. The mother of a young boy and now pregnant with another child, she is trying to bake a birthday cake for her loving but clueless husband (John C. Reilly). But it is unaccountably an insurmountable obstacle; she weeps, she looks askance at her son, she is gripped by compulsions she cannot escape. When her friend Kitty (Toni Collette) comes over with bad news, Laura herself has a kind of epiphany by grabbing Kitty and giving her a powerfully sensuous kiss. In fact each of the three protagonists in this film will bestow an almost desperate kiss on another woman.
The third story is of Clarissa (yes, named for Mrs. Dalloway) Vaughan (Meryl Streep), contemporary New York editor and committed lesbian with a partner, Sally Lester (Allison Janney), and a daughter, Julia (Claire Danes), preparing a dinner party for her friend and early lover the poet Richard Brown (Ed Harris), who will be awarded a great prize that evening. Clarissa has been caring for Richard, who is dying of AIDS, but Richard is more interested in the lure of death to end his pain than in a lingering life, no matter that what remains of his life is nurtured by Clarissa.
The film weaves back and forth among the three women on that one day in their lives, and we will see that in the course of the film there will be two successful suicides and one near one. For Virginia the crisis comes when her sister Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson) arrives to visit with her three children; for Laura the cake is the trigger; for Clarissa it is the party for Richard. The theme of early arrivals plays a role: Vanessa is due at 4PM but arrives at 2:30. The man to whom Clarissa lost Richard many years before, Louis Waters (Jeff Daniels), arrives unexpectedly early and throws off her party timing.
The film is so well made that we become active participants in the lives of the three women; they are played by masterful actresses, each with that rare actor's ability to open their psyches and let us in as we watch them on screen. Director Daldry films them as though he is their partner, allowing each the time and space to make her role meaningful to us in the audience. He has perfect pitch for the style and settings of each period. We are caught up more than if he had staged his scenes more theatrically because the drama comes from within each of them. The music is by Philip Glass, an inspired choice of composer, for it is a perfect match for this film, with its insistent repetitions and subtle changes of mood and rhythm.
If I've made the film sound like a litany of depressive episodes let me correct myself. The film is beautiful, warm and loving as it shares these lives with us. It flows with a rhythm that carries us through both pain and pleasure. It is always believable, marred only by a strange moment at the conclusion. The film ends with another arrival, of Richard's mother, with a revelation for us that I presume was dictated by the novel; it is unnecessary and adds a melodramatic element that does not belong in the film. It is the only false note in this otherwise magnificent work.