Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Hours" is a novel readymade for book-group discussions, preferably in conjunction with its main reference point, Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" (Ours dutifully took on the assignment.)
Cunningham's novel cleverly plays off "Mrs. Dalloway," a novel that we English majors are presumed to have read (though many of us didn't quite "get it" at the time), while following three parallel narrative strands: a woman nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway, who experiences a late 20th Century New York City version of the day that her namesake experiences in Woolf's novel; a depressed 1949 Los Angeles housewife, Laura Brown, who tries to find transcendence through reading "Mrs. Dalloway"; and Woolf herself as she writes the novel while fighting off the demons that eventually would cause her to take her own life.
Director Stephen Daldry's movie version of "The Hours," scripted by playwright David Hare, sets out to be the cinematic equivalent of literature. It's got a cast that oozes class: Meryl Streep as the modern Mrs. Dalloway, Julianne Moore as Laura Brown and Nicole Kidman as the author, plus A-caliber actors such as Ed Harris, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels, John C. Reilly, Miranda Richardson and Allison Janney in supporting roles.
The movie also shares the most serious, earnest qualities of Daldry's "Billy Elliot" without the previous movie's rock 'n' roll energy and release. The rhythms of "The Hours" are deliberate, circular, like Philip Glass' classical score, which is characteristically repetitive but does an effective job of bridging the various stories.
You watch "The Hours" aware that you're experiencing high-toned cinema, and there's much to appreciate here, particularly in the three leading female performances. Rarely does such high-profile talent serve such literate material.
But "The Hours" isn't a movie particularly meant to be enjoyed. The events that occur in the novel are, on the surface, brutally depressing, yet the darkness is offset by the ever-present beauty of the language and the world itself. Even at the book's most hopeless moments, you feel grace is within reach.
Film is a far more literal medium, though, and the story's bleakness more often comes across as simply that: bleak. The movie is filled with misery and suicide, either contemplated or attempted, and the fatalism of the worldview is overwhelming.
Part of the problem is that the story line that should result in the most potent payoff, Laura Brown's tale, is the least developed on screen. As usual Moore gives a fully invested performance, playing a housewife in a similar setting to her suburban "Far From Heaven" character yet giving it an entirely different, lost-at-sea spin as she struggles to bake a birthday cake for her easygoing husband (Reilly).
But the movie never digs into the roots of her depression and, more troublesomely, is far too sketchy in its portrayal of how her actions affect her young son; he just does a lot of puzzled gazing at her. In the novel this plot line dovetails with another part of the story to pack an emotional wallop. As rendered on screen, the revelation prompts more of a distanced "Oh! That's an interesting way to tie these strands together."
The film does have some advantages over the novel, such as how Daldry and Hare can link the events of each story through cutting. There's a certain power to seeing Woolf writing words followed by their impact on Laura Brown years later and their echoes in the contemporary Clarissa Dalloway's life. The transitions are seamless, giving the movie a smooth, steady momentum.
Streep's Clarissa is in a sense the main character, a distorted mirror image of Woolf's protagonist who lives in an apparently chilled relationship with her lesbian lover (Janney) and tries to spread sunshine where none is necessarily desired. She spends her day buying flowers and preparing to host a party for her poet friend, Richard (Harris), who is dying of AIDS and would prefer she not make the effort. He's far more prepared for his death than she is.
Streep is a great actress because she allows you to experience the wide range of emotions that pass across her face without your being conscious of any effort on her part (or yours). Clarissa is another of her singular characters, though fans of "Adaptation" may be amused to see Streep at one point surrounded by orchids.
But the performance that haunts the film is Kidman's. She's invisible as Woolf, not just because of her false nose but her entire demeanor. This is acting performed primarily through the eyes-which are piercing, as if she can see the truth through any smokescreen-and voice-which is low, properly British, clipped in perpetual frustration-and her way of carrying herself as if she's not comfortable in her own body, a quality you wouldn't necessarily associate with Kidman.
Virginia is fragile and indomitable. The scene in the train station where she declares that she is not living the life she wants has more impact than any of the climactic scenes that follow.
Cunningham's and Woolf's novels are dedicated to capturing a person's essence through the events of a single day, and Daldry's film is faithful to that aim. But the range of life presented here feels constricted; the movie misses the sublime for all of the despair. "The Hours" wouldn't be any less artistic-and it might make you feel its sadness more intensely-if it took a cue from Clarissa and let a bit of sunshine in.
3 stars (out of 4) "The Hours"
Directed by Stephen Daldry; written by David Hare; based on the novel by Michael Cunningham; photographed by Seamus McGarvey; edited by Peter Boyle; production designed by Maria Djurkovic; music by Philip Glass; produced by Scott Rudin, Robert Fox. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:54. MPAA rating: PG-13 (mature thematic elements, some disturbing images, brief language).
Clarissa Vaughan.....Meryl Streep
Laura Brown.....Julianne Moore
Virginia Woolf.....Nicole Kidman
Kitty.....Toni Collette Julia.....Claire Danes
Mark Caro is the Chicago Tribune movie reporter.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times