Nicole Kidman's Finest 'Hours'
The actress shows she's not afraid of Virginia Woolf – or looking like her – in this subtle, ambitious movie
Early in “The Hours,” Virginia Woolf's husband, concerned about his wife's emotional and physical frailty, insists she go eat something. But Woolf doesn't want to be distracted from her writing.
"I believe I may have a first sentence," she announces sternly, her eyes blinking away a tumult of thoughts. It's an excuse her husband accepts immediately, if with resignation. "Well, it's work, then," he says.
This is a simple moment, presented in a simple way, but it is also a perfect distillation of this unusual movie's approach – one so uncinematic that there is no logical reason why it should work so well.
Creative inspiration has always been difficult to show on screen, which is why so many artists in the movies go mad. “The Hours” could have taken the same route; after all, Woolf, played here by Nicole Kidman, did suffer from mental illness and committed suicide in 1941. But director Stephen Daldry refrains from showing the famous author stomping and flailing about. Woolf's madness is simply not what he's interested in here.
Indeed, “The Hours,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, could be the least flashy movie of the Oscar season -- and the most ambitious. It's about the kinds of things Oscar movies are often about: the pain of life, the burden of self-knowledge, and the notion that only through suffering and striving do we find our true selves.
But it's not earnest in the way we've come to expect of these movies. The characters do not come upon greater truths through their journeys -- just the same ones they started with, thoroughly wrung out.
The movie tells three separate stories, all revolving around Woolf's masterwork, “Mrs. Dalloway,” a novel about a woman who seems to have it all but can't escape her regrets. We follow Woolf in 1923, writing “Mrs. Dalloway” and at the same time trying to stave off "the voices." We check in on Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) in 1951, reading “Mrs. Dalloway” as she suffocates under the weight of her bland suburban life. And in 2001, we get Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a modern-day Mrs. Dalloway, who's planning a party for her dying friend (Ed Harris) as she juggles life with her partner (Allison Janney) and daughter (Claire Danes).
Kidman has been getting the most attention among the star-studded cast, and that's understandable. Wearing a prosthetic nose to make her vaguely resemble Woolf, Kidman physically disappears into the role. More impressively, she captures a woman who's caught up almost entirely in an interior life. Trapped in her own head, her Woolf enters every room sidelong, like a wary animal, her face downcast and eyes shooting lasers from under heavy brows. She has begun to realize that her cure -- the quiet of the countryside -- is only hastening her desire for the sweet release of death, and that she must do something about it. But she doesn't know what.
Frankly, we never expected this of Kidman. Conventional wisdom is clear on this one: Put a fake nose on a sex symbol and you're asking for trouble. But with this performance Kidman serves notice that she is more than a movie star, that she has something to tell us not just with her smile but with her guts. (The revelation comes just in time, too. The fake nose shows us, shockingly, how tenuous her beauty is, how utterly dependent it is on perfection. Her young co-star, Danes, will be beautiful at 50. Kidman, we realize now, can only hope for being well-preserved.)
The darkness that envelops Woolf isn't reserved for her scenes. It saturates the movie -- Moore's twitchy desperation as a housewife searching for a way out, Streep's stoic protectiveness as the friend of a hopelessly ill poet. The three women all have learned that happiness is a precious and rare gift, something to be earned. That's a courageous thing to make a movie about these days, when most Americans view happiness as a birthright -- and resent anyone or anything that suggests otherwise.
But that doesn't mean “The Hours” is a downer. In fact, the movie hinges on people making connections with one another, and it finds meaning in struggle and responsibility -- in being a grown-up.
"You cannot find peace by avoiding life, Leonard," Woolf says to her protective husband (the wonderful Stephen Dillane).
Clarissa Vaughan and Laura Brown know this as well, and their search for real moments in their lives parallels Woolf's search for the right words on the subject. Throughout, Daldry and screenwriter David Hare keep it simple, abridging Cunningham's novel with care and skill so that, scene by scene, they can reveal his characters from the outside in. This approach plays directly to the strengths of Streep, whose subtle performance keeps Kidman's and Moore's showier roles from spinning the movie toward pathos. (Daldry's one concession to high drama -- and it's a big one -- is Philip Glass' relentless score.)
The end result of all this is a bracing surprise: an adaptation of a prestigious literary novel that finds its own way in the world, without ever leaving home.
The Hours **** (out of five)
Director: Stephen Daldry
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore
Length: 110 min.
– By Douglas Perry, published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2002