[Screen It]

(2002) (Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore) (PG-13)

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Drama: Three women, who are all connected by one's earlier work, try to cope with depression and unhappiness in their lives.
It's Richmond, England, 1923, and English author Virginia Woolf (NICOLE KIDMAN) is trying to write her latest novel, "Mrs. Dalloway." Her move, along with husband Leonard (STEPHEN DILLANE), to the countryside has done nothing to improve her troubled state of mind, and not even a visit by her sister, Vanessa Bell (MIRANDA RICHARDSON), can get lift her out of her deep depression.

It's Los Angeles in 1951 and Laura Brown (JULIANNE MOORE) is a depressed housewife. Despite having a loving husband, Dan (JOHN C. REILLY), and young son, Richie (JACK ROVELLO), Laura feels that nothing about her and the choices she's made is right. A visit by an ailing neighbor, Kitty (TONI COLLETTE), doesn't help matters.

It's New York City, 2001, and Clarissa Vaughan (MERYL STREEP) is a book editor who's busy planning a party for her former lover, Richard (ED HARRIS), who's in the last stages of dying from AIDS. He's dubbed her "Mrs. Dalloway" due to her need to throw parties and look after others, but she's not particularly happy with herself. As her live-in lover, Sally (ALLISON JANNEY), looks on, and as daughter, Julia (CLAIRE DANES), and old friend, Louis (JEFF DANIELS), show up for the festivities, Clarissa finds her world unraveling.

As the three stories crisscross each other, the three women in them try to come to grips with themselves, they choices they've made, and how things have turned out for them.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
It's been said that the line between genius and insanity is a fine one. Even so, the notion of the tortured artist has become so overused (or overexposed) that it's nearly a cliché. Yet, it's certainly a reality, and many artists in various fields have struggled with and even succumbed to some form of mental illness or another.

One of the more famous cases of the latter involved that of Virginia Woolf. An English novelist, she was a prolific and trend-setting writer. She also suffered from recurring bouts of depression and other mental problems that not only invaded her works - such as "Mrs. Dalloway" - but also eventually led to her suicide.

Of course, artists aren't the only ones with such problems, although their related works often strike a chord with everyday folk suffering from the same or similar conditions. That's just part of the underlying theme and plot of "The Hours," a film that focuses on Woolf and two fictitious women from later eras who are touched by her.

As adapted by screenwriter David Hare ("Damage," "Wetherby") from Michael Cunningham's acclaimed novel and directed by Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot"), the effort is a film lover's dream. Most everything about it is top-notch and it features a stellar cast in an intricately woven story.

While some might complain that the picture has Oscar bait written all over it, methinks that's just a byproduct of the material and its ability to draw so much talent to it rather than just an attention-grabbing ploy.

The remarkable thing is how many strong roles the picture has for women. It's rare for any movie to have a solid leading role for one woman, let alone three. Yet, that's what this film offers and Nicole Kidman ("The Others," "Moulin Rouge"), Julianne Moore ("The Shipping News," "Evolution") and Meryl Streep ("Adaptation," "Music of the Heart") are so good that all should earn Oscar nominations for their work.

The most stunning performance comes from Kidman. Beyond the makeup that downplays and even suppresses her beauty (everyone will be talking about the prosthetic nose), the actress so alters everything about her being that she completely disappears into the role of Virginia Woolf. Playing an historical character suffering from mental illness is fraught with as many landmines as advantages, but Kidman (and the filmmakers) do an exemplary job of portraying the character and her persona.

The same holds true for Moore who embodies a depressed 1950s era housewife who escapes the doldrums by reading "Mrs. Dalloway." Although the role is temporally similar to the one she played in "Far From Heaven" (which could also earn her a second nomination for 2002), they couldn't be more different (other than in the stellar performances).

Streep plays the third character, a contemporary woman so similar to Woolf's protagonist that she's been given the nickname "Mrs. Dalloway" by her former lover - played by Ed Harris ("A Beautiful Mind," "Pollock") - in another standout performance. Like the other two roles, Streep's concerns a woman's unhappiness with her life and her dependency on others.

Although the thought of the movie jumping around between the three stories might make it sound disjointed and episodic, the filmmakers manage to keep all of that at bay. In fact, Daldry manages to keep it visually interesting with near identical or thematically similar transitions from one time to the next. One is apt to question how the stories ultimately intersect beyond theme, and while there's no shocking revelation or big surprises, what's offered does work and is more than satisfactory.

Since so many novels - and particularly this one - take place inside the characters' heads, I was a bit worried that the filmmakers might resort to voice-over narration - much like the recent adaptation of "Mrs. Dalloway" - to represent that. Thankfully, Daldry, Hare and the various performers found a way around that and still let the viewer know how the various characters are feeling.

If there's one major complaint about the film, it's that it's nearly unrelenting in its portrayal of gloom, melancholy and depression. It's not until near the end of the film that an uplifting event occurs, and it's rather brief in duration. The effective but similarly unrelenting score from composer Philip Glass ("The Truman Show," "Koyaanisqatsi") only drives home that point that's likely to leave many viewers depressed as well.

Perhaps that overbearing nature is what caused me to lose some interest and briefly disconnect from the proceedings less than midway through or why I didn't emotionally connect with the characters or story as much as I thought I would or should. I certainly felt for them, but didn't feel with them, and that's a substantial difference.

That's not meant to imply that everyone will respond the same way, but I was just hoping for a bit more of an emotional payoff beyond that one unexpected scene. Even so, the film is still an impressive piece of filmmaking and features solid supporting work from the likes of Toni Collette ("About a Boy," "Changing Lanes"), Claire Danes ("Igby Goes Down," "The Mod Squad"), Jeff Daniels ("My Favorite Martian," "Pleasantville"), Stephen Dillane ("The Truth About Charlie," "Spy Game"), Allison Janney ("Nurse Betty," TV's "The West Wing"), John C. Reilly ("Chicago," "Gangs of New York") and Miranda Richardson ("Get Carter," "Sleepy Hollow").

With strong performances, terrific writing and dialogue, and just the right directorial touch, the picture is a well-made and thought-provoking examination of depression, regret and acceptance, or not, of one's life and being. "The Hours" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 11, 2002 / Posted January 10, 2003

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