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On Dec. 27, 2002, The Hours, starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman, opened in limited release. The film went on to be nominated for nine honors at the 75th Academy Awards, winning best actress for Kidman. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
The Hours deserves the title “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” even more than the Almodovar film. This movie meticulously intertwines a single day in the lives of three women in different eras, each of whom is suffocating from an unnamable depression. The movie also is something of an A-list “cook-off” among three major actresses: Meryl Streep plays a literary editor in 2001 New York, Julianne Moore is a suicidal housewife in 1951 Los Angeles, and, most improbably, Nicole Kidman — with a prosthetic nose — turns into real-life author Virginia Woolf in 1923 England.
Astutely directed by Stephen Daldry, The Hours makes for a fascinating and ultimately successful stunt in its cross-cutting among the decades. In adapting Michael Cunningham’s novel, British playwright David Hare lets the themes of repressed desires, longing for happiness and the need to face one’s demons ring clearly in all three stories. With awareness high, women of all ages primed for a must-see and awards and nominations certain to come, the Paramount/Miramax production should develop momentum during the holidays to make a major impact on the box office in 2003.
In a pre-credits sequence in 1941 Sussex, we witness Woolf’s suicide by drowning in a river. As credits roll, the movie unveils its era-hopping strategy. Each story is haunted by the specter of suicide. Each woman, beneath the surface, finds herself in a moment of crisis.
Years earlier, Woolf — removed from London to the stultifying countryside of Richmond by her loving, desperate husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane), in hopes of easing her bouts of depression — gets the idea for her fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway. In the book, a single day in the life of a woman will reveal her whole life. Then the welcome interruption of a visit by sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson) and her three hyperactive youngsters reminds Virginia how much she misses London. As she continues to plot her novel — and debate with Leonard why someone must die in her story — she also plots her escape.
As Laura (Moore), four months pregnant with a second child, struggles to fulfill her wifely duties by minding a young son (Jack Rovello) and making a birthday cake for her husband (John C. Reilly), a neighbor, Kitty (Toni Collette), drops by to say she is going into the hospital for exploratory surgery. Frightened and touched, Laura impulsively kisses Kitty with the kind of kisses women weren’t supposed to give each other in 1951. Realizing how stifled and unfulfilled she is, with no hope of relief, she leaves her son with his sitter and drives to a nearby hotel, taking with her Woolf’s novel and enough sleeping pills to pull off an escape.
Not unlike Mrs. Dalloway, Streep’s Clarissa — which is Mrs. Dalloway’s first name — busies herself in party preparations to celebrate the winning of a literary prize by her friend Richard (Ed Harris), a poet dying of AIDS. Then a visit with the reluctant and sardonic guest of honor coupled with an appearance by his former lover Louis (Jeff Daniels) evokes too many memories for Clarissa. In their youth, she and Richard were once lovers too. Despite a seemingly well-balanced life with her current live-in lover, Sally (Allison Janney), and a supportive, independent-minded daughter (Claire Danes), Clarissa realizes those days with Richard were the happiest of her life.
These, then, are the movie’s stories — three desperately unhappy people trying to figure out what happiness means. As ideas and lines of dialogue drift from one segment to another, each story arrives at an epiphany. This is a muted, precious, downsized variant of D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance, where cross-cutting among historical time periods creates a larger picture, in this case, a portrait of the war between expression and repression — between life and death — that rages through the ages.
In her vocal inflections and body movements, the graceful, athletic Kidman morphs into an angular, tightly wound cerebral artist racked by hallucinations and voices. We see her fierce intellect struggle to work through these bouts to fulfill her artistry. Moore’s Laura is the dark side of Barbie, the square peg trying vainly to fit into a round suburban hole. Something frightening bubbles close to Laura’s surface, a thing she realizes she must embrace, not dread. Streep seems almost normal compared to the other two; she is closer to Leonard than Virginia. But not for nothing does Richard call her Mrs. Dalloway, so great is her fear that she has missed something in her life.
The movie is a production team’s dream. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer Maria Djurkovic and costume designer Ann Roth do a full-court press: 1920s England is all tweed and earth colors, folksy traditions and deadly dull. Los Angeles circa 1950 is brown and yellow and dark blue, sun-baked formality and an idealization of the good life that smoothers natural emotions. Modern Manhattan is blacks and blues, wintry, crisp and cold, causing Clarissa to buy flowers to camouflage its dreary reality. Mesmerizing compositions by Philip Glass brilliantly bridge the three sequences even as they emphasize the anxiety and heighten the alarm. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published Dec. 11, 2002.
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