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Friday, January 10, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Dream cast makes melancholy 'Hours' fly

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review


***
"The Hours," with Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Toni Collette, Claire Danes. Directed by Stephen Daldry, from a screenplay by David Hare, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham. 110 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, some disturbing images and brief language. Pacific Place.

In Michael Cunningham's novel "The Hours," a young mother sits at a table watching her husband and son, contented. The fleeting perfection of that moment is captured in Cunningham's prose: "Laura reads the moment as it passes. Here it is, she thinks; there it goes. The page is about to turn."

Stephen Daldry's elegant, melancholy movie "The Hours" is about the turning of those pages; the ticking away of time in the lives of three women. Based on Cunningham's novel, in turn inspired by the stream-of-consciousness narrative of Virginia Woolf's 1923 novel "Mrs. Dalloway," it's both a celebration of life and an elegy for those hours that keep relentlessly slipping away.

In 2001 New York, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) prepares to give a party in honor of her friend Richard (Ed Harris), a famed writer who is dying. Across the country and across the century, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) steels herself for another day with her family in a 1951 spanking-new California suburb. And, in 1923 England, Virginia Woolf herself (Nicole Kidman) crafts the opening sentences of what will become "Mrs. Dalloway." Clarissa, Laura and Virginia move through the business of their days, their stories intertwining like vines of ivy. Each has changed by the end of the day; each will never return to what she was before.

Because Cunningham's language (and Woolf's) is so internal — nearly everything happens within the minds of the characters — playwright David Hare ("Plenty") had a seemingly insurmountable task to translate this work for the screen. And he's done it miraculously, with a minimum of voice-over. This makes for a few jarring changes from the novel — in particular, it's a bit mystifying when Laura's vague thoughts of suicide turn into full-blown plans, complete with pill bottles — but the liquid fluidity of the book survives intact.

And in his three luminous actresses (all exquisitely pale, as if carved from ice cream), Daldry has found his dream cast. Streep at first seems to be trying too hard; her Clarissa is a rather theatrical woman, and she seems overly dithery early on, with too many nervous flutterings — until we get a close-up. Streep can convey oceans of meaning in a single, wordless gaze; her face, all angles and ageless beauty, tells endless stories. It's a complicated performance for a complicated woman; and Streep's peaceful smile at the end, as the lights go out, is like a benediction.

Moore, whose character struggles with depression, speaks as if every word is an effort; it's a careful act of suburban happiness that nobody seems to see through. Her young son (sweet-faced Jack Rovello, in a haunting performance) stares at her as if she's his very breath, and Moore lets us see that she resents his hold on her even as she adores him.

And Kidman, in an ill-fitting flowered dress and droopy hair, is nearly unrecognizable. She's narrowed her eyes into sharp little darts that see all, giving her face a foxy, slightly mocking cast. Her Virginia is nervous yet languid; a woman who envies her sister's grace yet prefers the company of a blank page.

"The Hours" is bookended by Woolf's famous 1941 suicide, letting the movie begin and end with the rush of a stream — mirroring the writer's language. Accompanied by the pulsing flow of Philip Glass' persistently lovely soundtrack, it's a collection of elusive moments and connections, a musing on nothing less than the meaning of life itself.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

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