The Hours is a depressive closet case.

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Dec. 31 2002 1:52 PM

Virginia Slim

The Hours is a depressive closet case.

Clare Danes and Meryl Streep in The Hours
Danes and Streep: Fussy stage business

The Hours (Paramount) was the longest pair of 'em I spent at the movies all year. I am aware that for some people this homage to Virginia Woolf is a profoundly moving experience, but I found the film, directed by Stephen Daldry from a screenplay by David Hare, excruciatingly flat-footed, with one of the most exasperating scores (by Philip Glass) ever written. The most fascinating thing in the movie is a nose.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, by Michael Cunningham, works better—but I have some doubts about it. The book begins with the author's notion of Virginia Woolf's state of mind on the day that she ended her life, then flashes back to the morning that she began to write Mrs. Dalloway—which Cunningham interprets as a rhapsodic meditation on the woman she could never be. Clarissa Dalloway can endure, despite her flashes of loneliness, because she can cling to the present moment and its "ordinary pleasures," whereas Woolf (played in the film by Nicole Kidman and said nose), the visionary artist, is doomed to the voices in her head and a couple of surly domestics.

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The conceit of the book and the movie is Cunningham's examination of comparable days in the lives of two other women, in alternating chapters. The first is Laura Brown (Julianne Moore, in the film), a '50s American housewife who feels devoured alive by the demands of her husband and young son; the second is Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a 50-ish, late-'90s Manhattanite who lives with a woman and tends slavishly to a dear friend and ex-lover, a garrulously despairing poet named Richard (Ed Harris) in the late stages of AIDS. In the '50s, Laura Brown is reading Mrs. Dalloway on the day she flirts with ending her life. In the '90s, Clarissa is referred to by Richard as "Mrs. Dalloway" and, like Woolf's protagonist, spends her day planning a party—in this case, to celebrate a rather morbid prize, at this late date, for Richard's work. Given the condition of the guest of honor, this becomes an increasingly absurd and futile task.

The novel seems like a veiled but insistent lament on behalf of the closeted homosexual. The fictional Mrs. Dalloway's one ecstatic kiss is with a woman; Woolf has an intense attachment to her sister and can find no spiritual fulfillment in her marriage; and Laura Brown, who may lose her best woman friend (Toni Collette, on-screen) to cancer, regards the prospect of a life with her devoted husband and children as the equivalent of a torturous death. I won't spoil a key revelation late in the book (and the movie), but the void in the poet Richard's life can be traced to the same repressive (hetero) domesticity. Cunningham does an artful job of channeling Woolf's rippling cadences, but his story, although richer in incident, is nowhere near as porous. At its best, The Hours is compelling Virginia Slim. At its worst, it uses Woolf's plangent voice to inflate a more limited (and a sourly sentimental) agenda: the gay higher consciousness, which dictates that being out somehow makes you uniquely self-aware.

Julianne Moore in The Hours
Julianne Moore in yet another '50s getup

The movie is somewhat closeted—not a surprise, considering how this director finessed the gay issue in the coal-miner's-dancer anthem Billy Elliot (1999). The subject of this middlebrow "women's picture" seems to be a generic sort of depression—the kind that you can treat these days with a host of serotonin boosters or MAO inhibitors, or with lithium. The Laura Brown section is the biggest dud, in part because the character's life is all internal, and in part because Julianne Moore is coming off Todd Haynes' much more intricate '50s mise-en-scène in Far From Heaven, and comparisons are both inevitable and unflattering to Daldry. At least the novel's Laura is somewhat plain, with a conventionally handsome husband. The filmmakers have made Laura's feeling of entrapment more ham-handed by pairing the lovely Moore with John C. Reilly, who should learn to say "no" to parts this demeaning, however big his paycheck or illustrious his co-stars.

Although Cunningham tells the three stories in discrete, alternating chapters, Daldry and Hare do a fair amount of skipping around in time, drawing constant parallels between Woolf and her descendants. Someone must have thought that Glass' music, with its incessant sawing strings (da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da da-da etc.), would be the equivalent of Cunningham's (or Woolf's) rushing prose and would weave together the various scenes and give the picture momentum. They forgot that that prose is always flowing off in new directions and carving new tributaries, whereas Glass either repeats himself or uses the sorts of progressions that would bore a reasonably intuitive Music 101 student after about six bars. The music just skips along the surface, homogenizing everything it touches.

It's possible, however, that without Glass' score there would be nothing to distract you from the overemphatic dialogue. In Hare's stagy universe, no one ever stumbles onto a topic or arrives at it by indirection: Characters make speeches the instant they see one another. Ed Harris gets the most arch lines, but his haggard demeanor (after porking up for Pollack two years ago, he has reduced himself to sinew and bone) can't help but alarm you—especially if you've known people in the last stages of AIDS. Streep has the least flashy character and is likable enough, but the actress still feels compelled to fill in every second with fussy bits of stage business; above all, Clarissa Dalloway (or her namesake) should just be. (I was excited when I heard that Streep would be playing the lover of a vaguely butch Allison Janney, but they have no chemistry, and I mercifully forgot that Janney was in the film.) The final section of the movie features a low point in the annals of screenwriting: A character enters in old-age makeup and, with barely a preamble, begins to enunciate the most traumatic details of her life to strangers. It's a Rod Serling moment.

The Hours would barely exist on-screen without Kidman. She doesn't play Woolf's anguish passively; she attacks it, and her scenes with Leonard (a superbly nuanced Stephen Dillane) have the right note of loving hopelessness. In her floppy hat and flowered dress, she looks angrily beside herself, as if she wants to bang her head against the wall until both of them split. Kidman has the perfect tetchy rhythm for Virginia Woolf, who was always pushing her sentences further, as if hoping to arrive at—or break through to—a trancelike state that wouldn't prove fleeting. And the proboscis? It liberates her. This might be the first time that moviegoers realize how an actor can be limited by a pretty, turned-up nose as much as by a giant honker; it doesn't change how she acts, but it changes how we see her. If she wins the Oscar, it will be by a nose.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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