Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore bring dignity and Oscar-worthy performances to "The Hours," a lovingly crafted meditation on death, loss and literature.

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Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Comparing a movie to a musical composition is one of those commonplaces of upper-middle film criticism that’s almost never true. “The Hours” is the exception that proves the rule. Director Stephen Daldry (of “Billy Elliot”) and screenwriter David Hare (an esteemed English playwright) have done what seemed impossible, rendering Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, a meditative exercise in which not much happens, into a meticulously constructed and richly rewarding film that dissolves the boundaries of time and narrative. Cunningham’s book and Daldry’s film are musical in the sense that each is essentially an exercise in counterpoint, a theme and variations based on Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” which attempts to distill a woman’s entire life into the events of a single day.

It’s easy to be snotty about a movie like “The Hours,” packed as it is with prestigious actors, tastefully appointed interiors, multiple-Kleenex moments pitched toward female audiences and mild highbrow pretensions. (Anything below five Oscar nominations for the cast and filmmakers will probably be viewed as a disappointment.) I have reservations about the film here and there, but the level of its craftsmanship is magnificent and its appreciation of the drama, terror and tragedy of everyday life is exquisite. If the film’s showpiece is Nicole Kidman, rendered unrecognizable by that prosthetic nose, giving an astonishing performance as Virginia Woolf, its emotional center is Meryl Streep as an American woman, circa 2001 — jittery and frayed in the way so many of us are these days — who must face an apparently ordinary day that will change her life.

Cunningham’s idea, somewhere between loving tribute and brilliant deconstruction, was to fracture the one-day story of Woolf’s novel between three different women widely separated in geography and time and explore the connections between them, some obvious and some not.

In 1923, in a London suburb, Woolf battles mental illness and makes a start on the book that will become “Mrs. Dalloway.” In 1951, in a Los Angeles suburb, a housewife named Laura Brown (played in the film by Julianne Moore) reads “Mrs. Dalloway” and tries to confront her own deepening depression. In 2001, in New York, Clarissa Vaughn (Streep), whose closest friends jokingly call her Mrs. Dalloway, plans a party for Richard (Ed Harris), a writer she cares for who is dying of AIDS. (Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is also named Clarissa and is also planning a party.)

Cunningham’s novel (like Woolf’s) incontestably shows a great talent at work, but I found it a bit too mannered and self-conscious, and perhaps too didactic as well, to fully enjoy it. What I mean by didactic, in this case, is that Cunningham’s focus on his characters’ indeterminate sexual preferences takes a legitimate and valuable insight — that either/or categories like “gay” and “straight” are meaningless when it comes to the human heart — and turns it into an unbending iron rule. This issue, and several others besides, is actually handled more gracefully by Daldry and Hare. Thanks largely to this remarkable cast, the sexual uncertainty of Virginia and Laura and Clarissa and Richard and everyone else in view seem like individual oddities in action, not like the expression of a general principle. It isn’t so much that everybody’s queer as that everybody’s screwed up in his or her own infinitely specific way — which is a general principle I can endorse.

Daldry’s “The Hours” begins and ends with the same startling scene, which occurs on a fourth day, separated in space and time from the other three: Woolf’s suicide in 1941, which she accomplished by wading into a river with stones in her coat pockets. (Attention, spoiler police: This happens in the first scene of the movie. Furthermore, in case you’re still confused, Virginia Woolf was a real person and the circumstances of her death are not a secret.) As in a piece of music, the same phrase has acquired a different resonance the second time around. It no longer simply conveys a tragic and desperate act (although it remains so); it is also a moment of resolution, self-determination, even nobility. As another character says in circumstances I shouldn’t divulge, life is always a question of “what you can bear.” We simultaneously understand that Woolf was a maddening, egotistical genius and that by 1941 she could bear no more.

Movies can also do something that novels essentially can’t (outside of the unreadable fringes of the avant-garde), which is to melt the boundaries between characters in different places and times. In its first few scenes, “The Hours” establishes that this trans-historical mosaic is to be its method. Virginia’s alarm clock goes off in 1923 and she struggles to wake; Laura turns hers off in 1951 and stays in bed; Clarissa shuts off the electronic beeping and leaps up. In perhaps 30 seconds of screen time, we see all three women confronting their faces in the mirror, putting their hair up and beginning to face the day.

Although “The Hours” isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, this approach even creates occasional moments of comedy. A bit later in the morning, Virginia composes the first sentence of her novel: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” In the next moment, we are back in 2001 Manhattan, where Clarissa calls out to her girlfriend (Allison Janney): “Sally? I think I’ll buy the flowers myself.” (In Cunningham’s book, by contrast, these transitions are private, literary moments: In one chapter, Virginia writes the sentence, and in the next, Laura reads it.)

As the day progresses, the correspondences between the three women grow more complicated, but so too do the differences between them. The point being made in both Cunningham’s book and Hare’s screenplay is not just that the patterns of women’s lives tend to replicate themselves or that life often imitates art, but rather that there is endless variation amid that repetition and that no two lives and no two days, no matter how humdrum, are ever the same. This is a story of frustrated desire and mortality and loss, but also one in which each character finds something precious where they may not expect it. Sure, that’s a formula. But it’s not too dissimilar to the one on which human life on planet Earth is based.

Of course at the outset we know more about Virginia Woolf than about the other two women. We know she will write a book and we know she will eventually kill herself, leaving a prodigiously eloquent note for her long-suffering husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane, whose dignified performance should not go overlooked amid all the female wattage). None of this makes Kidman’s acting here any less impressive; my companion commented that it’s actually difficult to see Nicole Kidman in this movie’s Virginia Woolf, and that’s not just a matter of the fake nose.

Kidman’s Woolf is a preoccupied, rather selfish, slightly disheveled creation who stands with her feet flat on the floor and her eyes downcast or averted. She’s sexy, all right, but in a sort of challenging, androgynous mode. She’s always serious and always relates to others that way, engaging in earnest discussion of a dead bird’s funeral arrangement with her visiting niece, a girl of 4 or so in whom she senses a kindred spirit. (Explaining the dead bird’s sex, she tells the girl, “The females are larger, and less colorful,” and you can’t help feeling she’s describing herself, with her darting eyes and her husky, masculine voice.)

At least since Jane Campion’s “Portrait of a Lady” it’s been clear that Kidman is a screen performer of impressive talent and technique. With “The Hours” she takes another step away from her movie-star persona and firmly becomes an actor playing a role, rather than a celebrity playing herself under a different name. I realize there are varying schools of thought on this question: Some critics and fans seem to think that movie stars have a kind of obligation to be “themselves,” and to use film as a channel for the personality traits we already recognize. Whatever you make of Kidman’s decision, it’s both remarkable and clear. For an actress to give up her face — her most marketable commodity — even for one role, is a startling decision, and it appears that Kidman’s subsequent career will remain closer to Streep’s than to Julia Roberts’.

While Kidman as Woolf is entertaining her sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson), wrestling with the opening sentences of “Mrs. Dalloway” and feuding with Leonard over her suburban isolation, Streep’s Clarissa is operating on a fuel composed of equal parts denial and competence. It’s wonderful that Streep, in her 50s, is still finding starring roles playing characters her own age, and is still understood as the consummate screen actress of our day. (She might well get two Oscar nods this year, for her impersonation of journalist Susan Orlean in “Adaptation” as well as for this film.)

Clarissa is certainly middle-aged: She has the dark circles under her eyes, the combination of haggardness and puffiness, that we recognize as the unhappy signifiers of the overworked professional woman. Even in her triviality, her obsession with the details of Richard’s party, we can see her pain and her dignity. We can even forgive her for bursting into a florist’s shop and exclaiming, “Oh, I think we’ll just have buckets of roses!”

Clarissa’s problem is that Richard, the poet with AIDS who has just won an award (as he puts it, an award for “getting sick and going nuts and surviving”) is fading into madness and decrepitude in his dusty SoHo loft, full of memories, uncollected trash and stacks of old Village Voices. (New Yorkers may well feel that Clarissa’s apartment is implausibly grand, but Richard’s loft is a perfect rent-control relic of the ’70s.) Clarissa’s day is organized around Richard, as is her whole life. In fact, Richard and Clarissa are the great loves of each other’s lives, notwithstanding the fact that Richard spent many years with a male lover (played by Jeff Daniels, he shows up late in the film) and Clarissa has been with Sally for a decade.

If Clarissa doesn’t know how bad her day is going to get, Laura Brown’s day, in 1951 California, could hardly get worse. Julianne Moore is not as obvious here as Kidman and Streep are, and the boxed-in depresso-housewife is something of a period cliché, but her performance as a woman trying to somehow climb out of the deep dark well of despair (or else abandon herself to it entirely) is nonetheless memorable. (Moore could also get double Oscar nominations this year, and I’ll be surprised if she doesn’t win the best-actress award for “Far From Heaven.”) Like the other two women in “The Hours,” she has a significant other who loves her but may not quite get what’s going on — in this case, it’s the hopelessly, cluelessly upbeat husband played by John C. Reilly. When she drops off her intensely needy little boy at the baby sitter’s we have no idea whether she’s coming back.

In all three stories, people may be on the verge of killing themselves, or at least are thinking about it. In all three stories, women kiss each other when we’re not quite expecting it, and I’m not talking about kissing to say hi, either. But “The Hours” isn’t a story about suicide or lesbianism, nor is it exactly about suburbia or AIDS or mental illness or Virginia Woolf’s artistic legacy. In some respects, it isn’t a story at all, but a meditation on those themes and more broadly on mortality, on the question of what we can bear, on the eternally surprising moments that allow us to bear more.

No race or ethnicity or sexual preference possesses a monopoly on death and suffering; both come to us all. But it’s not accidental that Cunningham’s novel, this highly aestheticized consideration of those themes, was written by a gay man. While “The Hours” only obliquely concerns the AIDS epidemic, it is almost certainly the most important literary work to emerge from that traumatic (and not yet resolved) period in our recent history. In adapting Cunningham’s work so carefully and lovingly to a visual medium that will reach a far wider public, Daldry and his collaborators have done him (and us) a great service.

If Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, with its long, lingering takes on the beautiful, troubled faces of Cunningham’s three women, is this film’s most obvious instrument, its secret weapon is Philip Glass’s musical score. Rather than employing pseudo-Wagnerian motifs for each of the film’s settings and characters, Glass’ now-familiar post-minimalist streams of sound create a connective tissue that threads them all together.

I have slight misgivings about the performances of Ed Harris and Jeff Daniels, two generally fine actors who seem to be playing “gay” with a certain kind of overly precise, almost feminine enunciation. (Of course there are prissy, queeny gay men in the world, but do all of them in the movies have to be like that?) And it’s fair to describe “The Hours” as a film of exquisite moments that gradually acquires a kind of cumulative power.

But oh, those moments. Clarissa, flat on her back on the bed, telling her daughter (Claire Danes, in a small role) about a particular morning on Cape Cod with Richard, years ago, that she thought was the “beginning of happiness.” Or Virginia and Leonard Woolf, sitting in a suburban train station after a screaming fight during which she has persuaded him to move back to London, despite her unstable mental state. He begins to cry quietly, perhaps understanding that, as much as he loves her, this self-absorbed bisexual nutcase genius (or whatever she is) will never really be his. Briefly the cloud of Virginia Woolf’s preoccupation lifts; she seems drawn out of herself, seems to notice him and appreciate him, seems to love him for himself.

Virginia, it is already clear, is cold. (Daldry’s film, and Kidman’s performance, make fewer apologies for this difficult personage, and sentimentalize her less, than Cunningham does.) Earlier in the day she has told Leonard that someone in “Mrs. Dalloway” will have to die, and we strongly suspect that the same is true of “The Hours” itself. As they sit by the fire in the evening, domestic peace restored, he asks her why. “Is that a stupid question?” he adds.

“No,” she says, considering it somberly. “Someone has to die so that the rest of us will value life more. It’s contrast.”

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