by Barley Blair

The Hours
dir. Stephen Daldry
Opens Fri Jan 10 at Pacific Place, Fri Jan 17 at various theaters.

The Hours intertwines three stories. In the 1923 story, Virginia Woolf works on Mrs. Dalloway. In 1951, housewife Laura Brown reads Mrs. Dalloway. In 2001, New York editor Clarissa Vaughn lives through a day much like the one described in Mrs. Dalloway. She buys flowers for a party she's throwing and reconnects with old friends--and of course Mrs. Dalloway's first name is Clarissa. Characters in all three stories speak lines from Woolf's works in perfectly natural ways, and many threads tie the stories together.

Suicide, for instance. Woolf killed herself; a character in Mrs. Dalloway commits suicide (we see Woolf decide he must); Laura Brown, the 1951 reader, longs for the respite of suicide. Bracingly, suicide is treated as a choice rather than a message.

Or childbearing. Childless Woolf eyes her sister's children coldly; Laura's childless friend puts on a brave face about having a uterine tumor removed, but Laura, four months pregnant, fears an incubus worse than any cancer; 2001 Clarissa has a child by artificial insemination and cares for Richard, a poet as demanding as a child. Nor are children mere pawns in their elders' lives. Woolf's niece intuits her aunt's torment; Laura's son is the typical hypervigilant child of a psychotic parent; Clarissa Vaughn's daughter shows real generosity.

Or caretaking. Laura of 1951 is tortured by the caretaker role expected of her. Clarissa of 2001 embraces caretaking; like Mrs. Dalloway, she is by temperament and profession a caregiver, but like Mrs. Dalloway she has her doubts. Caretaking isn't feminized. We see Leonard Woolf, one of the great "wives" of literary history, chafing under the requirements of the role he freely chose.

I was prepared to hate this movie. Script by David Hare, whose previous work I regard as self-absorbed Brit-babble, from a novel I haven't read by Michael Cunningham that won a Pulitzer, kiss of death, about a writer whose life is a lightning rod for stupidity about mental illness and feminism, and whose work has never meant much to me. Direction by Stephen Daldry, whose Billy Elliot was terrific in part because it was so self-confidently slight, here with a cast of thousands, every single one of them a Major Dramatic Star--well, except for good old Jeff Daniels, a favorite of mine since the imperishable Dumb & Dumber. A zillion-blillion-dollar budget, subject of a famous feud between Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein and producer Scott Rudin. And the nose! Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf in a large, deforming nasal prosthesis; I had seen it in the previews and shuddered. Altogether, I hoped the movie was a shapeless pasticcio that would let me make cruel fun.

I was so wrong. This is a really good movie. With so many parallels and connections, it's vital that the actors give highly differentiated performances. Meryl Streep as 2001 Clarissa and Stephen Dillane as Leonard Woolf both endure the tending of brilliant, hopeless people, but Dillane is almost Beckettian in pulling away from despair while Streep sinks into it and then bobs back up. Kidman as Virginia, Ed Harris as 2001 Richard the poet, Julianne Moore as Laura all suffer from psychoses, all have a core of willfulness, but how differently they play it! Kidman is convincingly oracular, Harris is antic, Moore is strangled. For any other actor, Moore's role might be underwritten, but she can make adjusting her jacket as eloquent as a thousand-word speech. The cinematography and the editing are exquisite. Over and over we watch as one story dovetails into another. A 1923 character turns her hair under; a 1951 character tucks hers up. A 2001 character looks up a stairwell; a 1923 character walks down the stairs. Unless both scenes are lit the same way, unless the shots are perfectly matched, the result will be sickening. Some movies pull this feat off twice or 10 times; The Hours does it by the hundreds.

The best is the script. I am no great lover of plot, to the extent that I typically can't remember how stories end, but most plots are piss-poor. This one is not only morally serious in its treatment of insanity, suicide, parenthood, and the writing life, it pulls off a rare technical feat: not one flashback, and yet we always know as much as we need to about what's going on. I have to go back and rewatch every movie with a David Hare script.

But I was right about the schnoz.