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The Hours

(2002) **** Pg-13
114 min. Paramount. Director: Stephen Daldry. Cast: Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris, Claire Danes.

As poetic as mainstream cinema gets, Stephen Daldry's meticulous realization of The Hours beautifully delineates the intersection of life and art as a nexus for meaning, especially for the drifting and downhearted. Michael Cunningham's novel won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and playwright David Hare adapts the story with firm restraint. Add music by Philip Glass and a cast led by Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman, and The Hours may be the most refined Hollywood production of the year.

The Hours had me at "hello" with an exhilharating montage tracing parallel lines between the three storylines which make up the film. Each pivots around a female figure: Virginia Woolf (Kidman), first seen in her final hours and then--at greater length--in the Richmond, England of 1923; Laura Brown (Moore), a glazed-over housewife in 1951 Los Angeles; and Clarissa Vaughn (Streep), a bohemian matron in 2001 New York City.

Woolf works passive-agressively against her home-bound convalescence, while writing her novel Mrs. Dalloway and tolerating a wary alliance with her publisher husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane). Brown spends an unsettling day at home with her son (Jack Rovello), preparing a birthday surprise for her husband (John C. Reilly) and reading portions of Mrs. Dalloway. Vaughn, known half-jokingly as "Mrs. Dalloway" by her friends, natters away at arrangements for a party on behalf of her ex-lover Richard (Ed Harris), a poet wasting away from AIDS.

With steady and confident repetition, Daldry layers visual and verbal echoes in time upon each story, all to the insistent pulse of Glass's score. In doing so, Daldry underlines the shared essences of human experience as well as the particular, unusual tissue which connects the three women on the timeline. The distinct connections between the stories become more concrete as the film evolves, though many are gestures and motifs as simple as the cracking of eggs or tossing of hair. Across time, characters come to the same conclusions or feel the same emotions: a longing to assert independence, the maddening emotional hold of powerful relationships, regret at unrealized goals, or triumphs--small and large--of self-expression. Daldry also frames symbolic imagery: flowers--blooming or cut--as symbols of life and death, or a stream as time, to which we all return.

Daldry gets exquisite work from his cast, and particularly his three leads. Kidman, sporting a much-discussed nasal appliance, credibly embodies Woolf as a shrewd, hawkish, compact mass of contradictory impulses, saved by genius (even her pinched hands around a fountain pen, lovingly photographed in close-up, project volumes). In a role superficially similar to her spot-on turn in Far From Heaven, Moore dazzles again, becoming a sad conduit of deep hurt and confusion. Streep, expertly playing in a higher octave and faster rhythm, jangles her bracelets like the song of her nerves till her cacophonous emotional crescendo. The stunt-gaunt Harris does impressive work, but plays as pushy as Dillane does rooted. Toni Collette and Miranda Richardson, and young buck Rovello scrawl affecting pleas in the margins, while Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney, Claire Danes, and Reilly turn in typically sturdy performances.

At times, The Hours doesn't know when to hold back, as in an unsubtle garden sequence involving an angelic little girl named (ahem) Angelica and a dying bird, but Daldry's sure touch ultimately salvages such self-consciously precious moments. For every such moment, Hare's screenplay serves up three well-woven patterns (like the creative development of the fragile guilelessness of youth to painful cynicism) or quotable profundities (like Woolf's self-protective observation that "You do not find peace by avoiding life"). Some will find this master class of acting, editing, music, and direction too labored, and the film acknowledges the impossibility of achieving its own goal--an encapsulation of life experience in art--but its noble, visionary attempt comes splendidly close.

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