Clock Watching

Virginia Woolf is putting on her coat with red, rough-knuckled hands. She stumbles out the door, pockets a large stone and wades into the river near her house in Sussex, England. As her shoes slip free of her feet, we hear her voice reading a suicide note to her husband. "I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been," she says.

So begins The Hours, a meditation on the powerful entanglement of life and death, of the past and the present. A film adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name, The Hours tells the stories of three women: Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), as she begins to write her great novel Mrs. Dalloway; Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a fragile housewife and mother in 1950s Los Angeles who is reading Woolf's book; and Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), a bustling editor in modern-day New York City. As Woolf muses in the movie, Mrs. Dalloway is "a woman's whole life in one day." The movie hews to a similar notion in showing how the characters' lives overlap, and what their futures hold.

After its tumultuous opening, the film plucks Virginia from the river and places her in Richmond, England, some 18 years before her watery end. She stalks around and smokes nervously, turning over a "first sentence" in her mind: "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." In the next scene, Laura wakes up and finds that her husband has bought flowers even though it is his birthday. Then the film shifts to New York, where Clarissa suddenly decides to go to the flower shop.

All three women are getting ready for a happy event, in much the same way Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway went through her day organizing a party: Virginia will host her sister and her nephews and niece, Laura will bake a cake for her husband and Clarissa will coordinate a celebration for her former lover Richard, a poet dying of AIDS. But each of them will find their gatherings marred by mortality, their lives woven together in a three-part fugue of sorrow, lost happiness and the possibility of hope.

Of all the women, Clarissa has the most potential for happiness, but even she has troubles. She whirls through her day -- visiting Richard, talking to Sally, her partner of 10 years, and preparing "the crab thing" Richard adores -- even though she's weighed down by some sadness. Her apartment is filled with flowers and the sound of the last of Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs, the composer's plangent reflections on death: It's as if she lives in a funeral home. Clarissa separates eggs at a furious pace while a visitor speaks of the mad intensity of a new relationship, saying, "You know what it's like." Clarissa's face flickers -- she doesn't. She's been held hostage by an echo of remembered passion: That's the stone in her dress, one long-ago perfect day that casts a shadow over the rest of her life.

Streep does her usual masterful job in depicting Clarissa's turmoil, but the finest performance of the movie belongs to Kidman. Her work has always had a tightly wound edge, and that nervous energy serves her well here. She looks down her prosthetic nose with a brilliant, distracted gaze, but she never gives off the sense that she's a beautiful actress slumming in shapeless dresses and messy hair, so completely does she inhabit the character. The only pity is that we've caught Virginia Woolf on one of her difficult days, and there's little of the acerbic wit or humor for which she was also known.

Laura, however, looks like she never had a good day in her life. In the recent Far From Heaven, Julianne Moore played another '50s housewife and gave a deeply moving performance. But this time she has somewhat less to work with. Laura is too inarticulately despairing; bereft of context or explanation, her sadness becomes an amorphous female malady, depression in an apron.

In a few moments like these, The Hours stumbles where both Cunningham and Woolf normally excel -- at depicting the rich inner lives of characters. To some degree, the film has replaced the book's poetic rhythms with talky, self-analytic dialogue or quick, imagistic cuts: Virginia's flowers, Laura's flowers, Clarissa's flowers, eggs, eggs, eggs. After awhile, one begins to feel clobbered by leitmotifs, bludgeoned by epiphanies. The Philip Glass score is similarly unrelenting, its throbbing triplets demanding an emotional response: Cry, damn you!

When the movie relaxes its grip, however, the performances and images do attain the overpowering resonance the film strives to achieve. The words "I love you" are shackles and a lifeline, and suicide reflects both anguish and the desire to set love free. "To look life in the face always . . . and to know it for what it is at last . . . to love it for what it is and to put it away," Virginia's voice says as she walks out into the river. To the rest of us, then, is left the hard task of living in the face of loss, with each hour -- joyful and despairing -- made more precious for its fading.

Noy Thrupkaew writes regularly about popular culture for TAP Online.

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