British stage director Stephen Daldry follows up his feel-good feature debut “Billy Elliot” with a very different film–an adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel, a cryptic multi-generational rumination on feminine depression which itself was constructed around Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel “Mrs. Dalloway.” Woolf’s book, which details a single day in the life of an upper-class British socialite reconsidering her life’s choices as she prepares an elaborate soiree, is itself a work highly resistant to cinematic treatment, but helmer Marleen Gorris, writer Eileen Atkins and star Vanessa Redgrave collaborated to transform it into an exquisite picture in 1993. Cunningham’s novel is an equally difficult nut to crack, adaptation- wise: it juggles a recreation of Woolf’s difficult composition of her book (and reference to her later suicide) with portraits both of a distraught 1950s housewife who contemplates taking her life while reading Woolf’s book (and preparing a birthday party for her husband) and of a contemporary New York woman who confronts her own unhappiness while hosting a celebration in honor of a poet friend, dying of AIDS, who’s just been awarded a literary prize (and with whom she’s clearly in love). What ties the three strands together, and links each of them to Woolf’s original, is that all four women–Mrs. Dalloway included–are faced with the brutal realization that, as one of them articulates it, they aren’t living the lives they want to live, and are mulling the possibility of changing their circumstances in a most extreme fashion. (There’s another connection, too, but as it’s not revealed until the end, and although it would seem fairly obvious, we’ll not mention it here.)
Oppressively intricate and melancholy without offering much compensatory insight, this is hardly material that invites the Hollywood treatment; but happily the filmmakers have taken the task seriously and attempted a truthful realization of Cunningham’s book. David Hare, himself a distinguished playwright, hasn’t gone the Charlie Kaufman route by writing a script about the difficulties of adapting it, and Daldry has assembled an extraordinary cast and an obviously devoted crew. Unhappily, the result is a grave disappointment. To be sure, there are major strengths. “The Hours” showcases some of the best actresses in the world, and each of them works very hard to give her role texture and force. Nicole Kidman makes the greatest impression as Woolf: in heavy makeup and frumpy clothes, she creates a rich, vibrant portrait of the anguished author. Streep is nearly as strong: as the New Yorker who shares her given name–Clarissa–with Mrs. Dalloway, she uses all her considerable talents to etch a picture of a woman distraught over the illness of the man she dotes upon. (It must be added that the character remains a bit opaque, since the sexual orientation of Clarissa and Richard, the writer she cares for, is never fully explained: she lives with Sally, a woman her own age, and one of the guests who shows up for her party is Louis, who’s apparently Richard’s former lover.) As Laura, the California housewife of the Eisenhower era who contemplates suicide (something her young son seemingly intuits), Julianne Moore is ethereal and touching, even though the role echoes the one she plays in “Far from Heaven” (a film in which she has a greater opportunity to shine). As if this trio weren’t riches enough, Allison Janey (of “The West Wing”) brings her brand of gruff amiability to Sally, Claire Danes ably portrays Clarissa’s concerned daughter Julia, Miranda Richardson is vivacious as Virginia Woolf’s better-grounded sister Vanessa, and Toni Collette has a striking scene as Laura’s impeccably dressed neighbor Kitty, who has troubles of her own. Appropriately, the film also has a part for Atkins, who’s played Woolf on the stage and wrote the “Mrs. Dalloway” script, as a hard-noised cook. “The Hours” is thus the rare picture that offers meaty roles to a whole list of fine actresses. It’s also very carefully structured and shot, taking pains to clarify the twists of the material and to differentiate among the moods of the three stories (Maria Djurkovic’s production design and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography are integral to the effort).
But the drawbacks are equally severe. Despite–or perhaps because of–the decorum with which Hare and Daldry have approached the material, there’s a stuffy, lugubrious quality to the film, accentuated by the constant shuffling from story to story and the gloomy tone that suffuses them all. (On the page, an author can make the different strands dovetail subtly, but on the screen the connections are necessarily more blunt, and so cruder.) The masculine members of the cast, moreover, don’t match the women. Ed Harris, who was so brilliant as Pollock, does nothing beyond the ordinary as Richard; Jeff Daniels overplays Louis; Stephen Dillane is brusquely demanding as Woolf’s husband; and John C. Reilly makes remarkably little of Dan, Laura’s husband, who’s utterly oblivious to her torment. (To be fair, their failures are more the fault of the writing than the performances; this is one of the rare scripts in which the female parts are detailed and complex, and the male ones mere sketches. Curiously enough, the best contribution from a guy comes from little Jack Rovello, who’s oddly touching as Laura’s son, whose sensitivity contrasts markedly with his father’s obtuseness.) The picture is further hobbled by Philip Glass’s score, which comes in synthesized waves, presumably to tie the three narratives together (and suggest the watery mode of Woolf’s death, which hangs over the film), but which proves overly intrusive and, with its constant repetitions, exaggerates the one-note character of the entire project.
“The Hours” is a true oddity–a women’s picture that aims to depress rather than uplift. (It’s like a mirror image of camaraderie-building chick flicks like “Steel Magnolias” and “The Ya Ya Sisterhood.”) Unfortunately, it succeeds in its ambition to depress only too well.