The Hours

The Hours

*****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Three women, one day, a connection.

Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) walks into the river and drowns. Laura (Julianne Moore) stands in her neat kitchen, overwhelmed by the expectation of suburban conformity, as tears run down her cheeks like rain. Clarissa (Meryl Streep) allows a surge of panic to unravel her, while preparing a party in Greenwich Village for her friend, Richard (Ed Harris), who is dying and won't come.

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"All your friends are sad," Clarissa's daughter (Claire Danes) tells her. Virginia faces her sister's youngest child in the wood beyond the garden. "What happens when we die?" the little girl asks. "We return to the place where we came from," Virginia says, after some thought. Laura leaves her son Ricky with a neighbour, while she drives to an hotel. In her bag are bottles of pills, enough to kill a horse.

What is the connection? "Why is everything wrong?" Is happiness a falsehood? "Mrs Dalloway was always giving parties to cover the sadness." Virginia tells her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane), "I believe I may have a first sentence," something about Mrs Dalloway deciding to buy the flowers herself. Clarissa buys the flowers herself for Richard's party. Laura lies alone in her bedroom, reading Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf in Los Angeles, 1951. "My life has been stolen from me," Virginia says. These women carry pain, like a secret, preparing a face with which to deceive the day.

It would be difficult to overestimate the quality of this film. Based on a literary work by Michael Cunningham, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1998, David Hare put tough restrictions on himself when adapting it for the screen - no flashbacks, no voice-over narrative. This means that the emotional thread, joining a mentally unstable novelist in Surrey in the Twenties to a pregnant Californian housewife during the Eisenhower years to a lesbian New York publisher's editor in 2000, must be woven by insinuation, inference and precise editing.

Their lives mirror in subtle, unexpected ways as slowly, with infinite delicacy, a connection is made. Director Stephen Daldry's experience in the theatre enables him to coax extraordinary performances from a stellar cast. Even amongst the supporting roles, there are moments of spine-tingling wonderment, especially from Harris, as an AIDS victim, and Toni Collette, as Laura's friend, whose repressed feelings animate her every movement.

Kidman is too beautiful to play Virginia, even without makeup, and yet she captures the writer's obsessive self-awareness perfectly, almost as if standing aside and watching with bemused fascination as madness crawls into her mind. Moore takes Laura to the brink of breakdown, silently screaming in calm air, while smiling sweetly to deter intrusion. Her fear is that of a prisoner, awaiting execution, in the merciless sunlight of an American dream. Streep rushes, as Clarissa busies herself around the invalid and the arrangements. Somewhere, beneath the facade of comfort and success, she indicates an understanding of Virginia's predicament, that expression is futile, presentation fraudulent and "you cannot find peace by avoiding life."

Reviewed on: 28 Jan 2003
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Three women from different decades connect through the writing of Virginia Woolf.
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Jennie Kermode ****

Director: Stephen Daldry

Writer: David Hare, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham

Starring: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Stephen Dillane, Toni Collette, John C. Reilly, Allison Janney, Jeff Daniels, Miranda Richardson, Claire Danes

Year: 2002

Runtime: 114 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US/UK

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