Hopeless `Hours'

Despite star power, there's little upside to this downer about women in crisis.

January 17, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Hours is precious in the worst way. Like Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (itself a wispy thing), this over-refined adaptation centers on three women in crisis.

Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) holds mental illness at bay during the writing of Mrs. Dalloway. A depressed 1950s L.A. housewife (Julianne Moore) flirts with suicide as she reads Mrs. Dalloway. And a contemporary book editor (Meryl Streep), nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway by a writer friend (Ed Harris), mirrors Woolf's heroine when she attempts to throw a celebratory party for this best pal and onetime lover despite his bouts of AIDS-induced dementia.

The movie means to salute the fragile memories of joy that can be wrested from chaotic modern life. Instead it comes across as an advertisement for suicide, all the more so because screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry go about their jobs like skilled morticians, beautifully embalming their lead performers and arranging them in exquisite poses meant to convey repressed emotion.

The movie starts with Woolf drowning herself in 1941(the rest of Woolf's section unfolds in 1923). The moviemakers' way to overcome that initial obstacle is to glamorize feelings that are both downbeat and highflown.

Kidman's Woolf and Moore's Laura Brown skulk through the film with impeccable impersonations of gnawing dissatisfaction. But the script does nothing to indicate why they feel so unfulfilled and so unhappy. They simply respond to vibrations beyond the understanding of their spouses, whether the hard-working intellectual Leonard Woolf (Stephen Dillane, who gives by far the most dramatically intelligent performance) or the hard-working middle-class businessman Dan Brown (John C. Reilly, who makes little of a nothing part).

This movie is so pleased with its own tenderness that it may bring out the brute in an audience. When Virginia lectures Leonard on how she knows best about her mental illness (a thought her suicide places into question), or Laura looks at Dan's bed as if it's a prison cot, some of us may feel like shaking them.

The Hours goes so far into heroine-worship that it undercuts its own logic. When we hear Virginia declare her love for Leonard in her suicide note, are we supposed to take her seriously? There's no evidence of affectionate attachment in the movie. It makes Leonard look like a paternalistic prig who resents the sacrifices he makes for his wife. Only Dillane's moving suggestion of real yet exhausted emotion salvages the characterization.

You have to grasp at straws to make even "poetic" sense of the narrative. At times it appears to be about the denial of lesbianism. Virginia gives her sister, Vanessa (Miranda Richardson), a shocking, passionate kiss. When Laura discovers that her friend Kitty (the always vibrant Toni Collette) has a scary gynecological problem, they kiss warmly, romantically. (Of course, these smooches echo Woolf's Dalloway kissing the best friend of her youth, Sally.)

Would Virginia and Laura be more life-embracing if they were more like Streep's Clarissa? (She isn't just nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway, she shares the character's first name.) Clarissa may have realized her sole moment of ecstasy decades ago with her gay literary hero, Richard, but her devoted female lover (Allison Janney) offers solace and repair when Richard's case of AIDS begins to tear her life apart.

Kidman and Moore (in a replay of her Far From Heaven role) at least have a period picturesqueness to carry them through; Streep appears blanched-out as Clarissa. Like Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, she strives for an elegant equipoise of amiable social life and authentic emotion. But unlike Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, she has no dash or dazzle. She's drably obsessed with Richard. (How else could one be obsessed with him, given Harris' atypically dull, pathos-dripping performance?) In one more appalling instance of glorified narcissism, Clarissa blurts out to her daughter (Claire Danes) that she was happiest in her brief time with Richard. It's yet another shake-worthy moment of insensitivity posing as "sensitivity."

Following novelist Cunningham's lead, Hare uses World War II and the AIDS epidemic to mirror Woolf's use of World War I and its aftermath as social catalysts for psychological upheaval. But the mosaic Hare draws in his intertwining stories is too perfect and too general. Marleen Gorris' 1998 film of Mrs. Dalloway, with Vanessa Redgrave, offended some Woolfians with its political explicitness, but did a much more organic and persuasive job of depicting horrendous historical forces bruising civilized sensibilities.

The scholar Alex Zwerdling titled his bracingly unconventional overview of the writer's work Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Unfortunately, The Hours, for all its small miracles of historical reproduction, returns the writer to the unreal world of actions and words put into rhyming patterns - the kind best savored in silent, cork-lined rooms.

The Hours

Starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Ed Harris, Stephen Dillane

Directed by Stephen Daldry

Rated PG-13

Released by Paramount

Time 114 minutes

Sun Score: **

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