- The Washington Times - Friday, January 10, 2003

"The Hours" was a working title for the novel Virginia Woolf ultimately titled, "Mrs. Dalloway." To judge from her journal entries for the period of the book's composition roughly summer 1922 through autumn 1924 Woolf favored one and then the other for months at a stretch before settling on "Mrs. Dalloway."
So it could be argued that the American novelist Michael Cunningham was justified when he took "The Hours" as the title of his own 1998 novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner. The novel begins with a re-enactment of Woolf's suicide by drowning in 1941 and then backtracks to the day she wrote the first sentence of "Mrs. Dalloway."
At that time she was living in Richmond, England, with husband Leonard Woolf, who was running their cottage publishing company, Hogarth Press. The early 1920s at-home setting with the Woolfs played by Nicole Kidman and Stephen Dillane becomes a kind of "portal" that Mr. Cunningham uses to fabricate echoing fateful days in the lives of completely fictional women.
One of these is Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a young housewife and mother in Los Angeles soon after World War II. Reading "Mrs. Dalloway" seems to crystallize her panicky decision to abandon her family.
Another is Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), a book editor in present-day Manhattan. She shares a first name with the title character of "Mrs. Dalloway." This association is also emphasized by a former lover, an obscure poet and novelist named Richard (Ed Harris), whom Clarissa has been attending constantly as he suffers through a terminal case of AIDS.
The time-shifting scheme of the novel has been deftly transposed in the faithful and prestigious movie version by the English team of screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry. You have to admire the devotion and craftsmanship of the filmmakers, who appear to overrate the source material heart and soul.
"The Hours" is loaded with penny-dreadful booby traps, especially when resolving the Laura Brown and Clarissa Vaughn subplots, but it does boast a substantial amount of cinematic luster, courtesy of a top-flight cast and Mr. Daldry's pictorial finesse.
Here's one example, and it's the sort of transitional device that the movies do well: A doorbell rings in the Richmond setting, at the Woolf home. It is answered in the Manhattan setting, where someone is also calling on Clarissa, who shares a Greenwich Village town house with a lesbian partner named Sally (Allison Janney).
Numerous remarks, gestures and occurrences are contrived as "coincidental" links between the three settings and the three women, who at the outset are rather tritely differentiated as famous writer, distant reader and long-suffering editor.
A conspicuous "moderne" conceit is to isolate all three women in fleeting lesbian interludes. Only the Clarissa-Sally interlude makes inherent, organic sense, because we're supposed to accept them as a couple, anyway.
The dependency of "The Hours" on Woolf's real life is self-evident: The two fanciful female protagonists Mr. Cunningham has invented go through would-be crises that fail to measure up. On the contrary, these women's stories remain haplessly cliched and shallow.
It seems pretty coldblooded to use a writer's suicide as the jumping-off point for your book. Nevertheless, the suicide prologue is depicted with pastoral-sinister vividness by Mr. Daldry. It provides the movie with a harrowing downbeat but one that is essentially irrelevant to the rest of the story.
Not to worry, though, since Miss Kidman is immediately restored to us as a younger and less desperate Virginia Woolf. Despite a prosthetic nose that makes her somewhat unrecognizable, Miss Kidman is a fascinating bundle of nerves and moods and specific gestures in this role. Her performance is strengthened immeasurably by Mr. Dillane's believability as Leonard, who has legitimate reasons to fear that his wife might snap.
As the movie evolved, I kept resenting the cutaways from the Woolf time frame. It's only the day with the Woolfs that dignifies the whole tricky conception and preserves a satisfying, self-contained dramatic structure. The Brown and Vaughn digressions prove coy and unscrupulous, and the revelation that supposedly knots them together is a prize tear-jerking groaner.

TITLE: "The Hours"
RATING: PG-13 (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; fleeting nudity; subplot about a terminal AIDS case; fleeting allusions to lesbian encounters or relationships)
CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Daldry. Screenplay by David Hare, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham.
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

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