Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) published Mrs. Dalloway in 1925. Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) reads it in post--World War II Southern California, and it reshapes her life. In present-day New York City, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) lives a version of the day Woolf imagined for her protagonist in distant London.
One can imagine this intricate intertwining of historically and geographically separate lives working as a literary conceit. Indeed, Michael Cunningham won a Pulitzer Prize for it with his novel The Hours. While a reader can imagine Woolf and the others, a movie must literally flesh out fictional creations, and so a certain unfortunate literalness of presentation creeps into the picture. Watching The Hours, one finds oneself focusing excessively on the unfortunate prosthetic nose Kidman affects in order to look more like the novelist. And wondering why the screenwriter, David Hare, and the director, Stephen Daldry, turn Woolf, a woman of incisive mind, into a hapless ditherer. Gentlemen, she was only a part-time madwoman. Most of the time, she possessed one of the most interesting sensibilities of her century.
But this movie is in love with female victimization. Moore's Laura is trapped in the suburban flatlands of the '50s, while Streep's Clarissa is moored in a hopeless love for Laura's homosexual son (Ed Harris, in a truly ugly performance), an AIDS sufferer whose relentless anger is directly traceable to Mom's long-ago desertion of him. Somehow, despite the complexity of the film's structure, this all seems too simple-minded. Or should we perhaps say agenda driven? The same criticisms might apply to the fact that both these fictional characters (and, it is hinted, Woolf herself) find what consolation they can in a rather dispassionate lesbianism. This ultimately proves insufficient to lend meaning to their lives or profundity to a grim and uninvolving film, for which Philip Glass unwittingly provides the perfect score--tuneless, oppressive, droning, painfully self-important. --R.S.