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'The Hours' drags on and on and on

Nicole Kidman looks tormented
[Photos: Paramount Pictures/Miramax Films]
Nicole Kidman hides her beauty under latex to play tormented author Virginia Woolf.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 16, 2003

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The movie with Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore is an admirable intellectual exercise in filmmaking. And nothing more.

Stephen Daldry's The Hours is the most finely crafted film of the past year that I never want to sit through again. The performances are flawless, the screenplay is intelligently crafted, and the overall mood is relentlessly bleak. It is a film to be admired, not embraced, and certainly not to be enjoyed for any reason other than its expertise.

The Hours is a morose film, based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and mounted with Oscar posterity in mind. Each scene seems calculated to be shown while the nominees are announced, with the sort of smug intellectualism marking the similarly pedigreed The Shipping News a year ago. Glacially paced and somberly presented, The Hours demands that viewers be as impressed with the production as the filmmakers are with themselves.

For a while, that accommodation is easy. Daldry and screenwriter David Hare have an interesting time shuffle to emulate from Cunningham's book. Three women in different eras are facing personal crises. What they share is a common literary bond, Virginia Woolf's tragic 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway. Viewers familiar with the book, or at least the 1997 film version starring Vanessa Redgrave, have a distinct advantage in recognizing parallels between the decades and the women suffering through them.

One woman is the suicidal author Woolf, played by an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman in one of those beauty-burying roles that is too easily lauded as brave. That Kidman extinguishes her sparkle behind a latex impersonation of Woolf's homeliness doesn't mean it's a great performance, just one that's ego-free. That passes for bravery in show biz.

Another woman is Laura (Julianne Moore), a demure 1950s housewife whose devoted husband (John C. Reilly) and children aren't fulfilling. By coincidence, Moore's performance comes in the same movie season as her award-winning work in the same kind of role in Far from Heaven. By comparison, her contribution to The Hours suffers.

The third woman is Clarissa (Meryl Streep), planning a birthday party in 2001 for her former lover Richard (Ed Harris, in the film's best performance), who is dying of AIDS. Streep continues her streak of never giving a bad performance, yet Clarissa's one-note demeanor of concealed grief doesn't allow the range of shadings she's able to provide.

Daldry smoothly shifts among the eras, from Woolf struggling with writing Mrs. Dalloway, wondering how far she should push the character's mortality, to Laura wondering if she should end her life, to Clarissa watching as Richard does. Suicide is a recurring theme in The Hours, as characters express every reason for why it is or isn't an alternative. Happy New Year.

Lesbianism is another recurring theme, with Virginia's suppressed yearnings for someone other than her dull husband (Stephen Dillane), Laura planting a kiss on her neighbor (Toni Collette) and Clarissa out and proud, living with her lover (Allison Janney). Janney's character is the only woman confident in her sexuality; the others are restricted by social convention.

Not many years ago, the complaint about films dealing with homosexuality was that people died because of their sexuality or were otherwise anguished by it. The Hours comes close to making that mistake, perhaps too confidently expecting modern viewers to sense tragedy, not justice. But the pre-2001 characters are so chilly, their situations so tilted in society's favor of heterosexuality, that death appears to be the only result of same-sex attraction. Clarissa survives, but what about Richard?

It should be noted that The Hours is a feminist drama directed by a man, from a man's screenplay adapted from a novel by a man. Whether that colors their interpretation of what makes lesbianism an issue is suitable for debate. (Check the credits: The only women with power behind The Hours designed the costumes and decor, except for one producer conferring with four male partners.)

Whatever the reason -- too gloomy, too slow, too slanted -- The Hours is too highbrow and admirably dull for most moviegoers. It's the kind of film that makes critics feel smarter by recommending it, even at the risk of damaging credibility with mainstream audiences who automatically think any movie starring Kidman, Streep and Moore is worth viewing. The Hours will feel like days for them.
A sad couple
Meryl Streep is planning a birthday party for a former lover, Ed Harris, who is dying of AIDS.

The Hours

  • Grade: B-
  • Director: Stephen Daldry
  • Cast: Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, John C. Reilly, Stephen Dillane, Miranda Richardson, Toni Collette, Claire Danes
  • Screenplay: David Hare, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham
  • Rating: PG-13; mature themes, profanity, suicidal images
  • Running time: 114 min.

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