What connects all three is Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway, as an early sequence reveals. We find Virginia writing the first line of the book, then see Laura reading that line -- "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself" -- and finally hear Clarissa, who shares Mrs. Dalloway's first name, announcing, "I'm going to buy the flowers myself." In a nutshell, one woman writes a book, another reads it, and a third, somehow, is living it.
Michael Cunningham named his original novel The Hours after Woolf's working title for Mrs. Dalloway, and it's one of those books that's supposed to be unfilmable. Undaunted, director Stephen Daldry provides a richly stimulating film experience that nevertheless mishandles some of its intriguing ideas.
For all three women, thoughts of mortality intrude on an impending party. Living in the country to recover from mental illness, Virginia receives a visit from her conventional sister (Miranda Richardson). Meanwhile, Laura labors to live up to a homemaker's ideal by baking a birthday cake for her husband (John C. Reilly). And Clarissa is hosting a reception for her close friend Richard (a bitterly seething Ed Harris), a poet who's received a prestigious award, which he considers a consolation prize for having contracted the AIDS virus.
Streep and Moore dig deeply for the multi-dimensional, sympathetic portrayals that we expect from them, yet Kidman provides The Hours' most commanding work. Wearing a prosthetic proboscis, she seems so liberated as an actress that she might want to make the false nose permanent. It's like she's freed from the effort of maintaining her cover-girl looks and has more resources to put into building a character.
As Virginia Woolf, she's not sleek and elegant but gangly and stork-like, and she's often so wrapped up in her writing that she barely perceives the people around her. Virginia treats her loving husband (Stephen Dillane) with petulance because she feels imprisoned by country life, even though London's hustle aggravates her mental problems.
You don't need to have read Mrs. Dalloway to appreciate the performances and parallel lives in The Hours. Having Philip Glass compose the soundtrack was a stroke of genius, as the recurring themes in his music go hand-in-hand with the film's repetition of such symbols as flowers and such themes as the contemplation of suicide.
But as The Hours ticks on, the film seems to lose confidence in its own concept. The script, by playwright David Hare, relies heavily on theatrical monologues that spell out the film's ideas more overtly than is necessary. A late revelation connecting two of the time periods also feels like an attempt to "explain" the premise.
The Hours provides audiences with a fascinating triptych of stories. And entirely by accident, the film itself belongs to a triptych of current movies. Julianne Moore also plays a 1950s housewife wrestling with secret longings in Far From Heaven, while Meryl Streep also plays a New Yorker who works with words and seeks meaning in her life in Adaptation.
It's a fluke of casting and scheduling that the three films are released at the same time, and it's impossible not to notice how they reinforce each other. In its own way, each film involves responding to works of art. Adaptation wrestles with the book The Orchid Thief while Heaven riffs on the films of Douglas Sirk. With The Hours linking them, the cinematic trio may provide the richest cinematic event of 2002. All three films reach outside of themselves -- and inspire viewers to do the same.