Kidman, Moore and Streep in Their Finest 'Hours'

Virginia Woolf has written an achingly graceful apology to her husband for what she must now do, and an appreciation for all he has been through for her. Leaving her house, she walks to the local river -- the Ouse -- with unblinking purpose. She has heavy stones in her pockets.

In "The Hours," the death of the haunted, brilliant British author (played by Nicole Kidman) starts a fatalistic ripple. Decades later, two women (played by Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep) will feel the sad, anxious rhythms of Woolf's life and death.

The movie, based on Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is deeply moving, but not merely for three stories of agony, bravery and inspiration. With its deft intercutting of place and time, the film creates a powerful sense of mysticism and fate. As with such wildly disparate films as D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance" and Paul Thomas Anderson's "Magnolia," we are invited to watch these stories from a godlike perch and appreciate the synchronicity. This is about more than individual lives. It's about collective experience.

Woolf, who is seen at various times between 1923 and 1941, is in the throes of writing the novel "Mrs. Dalloway," which addresses powerful issues in her life, both as human and artist. As she ponders these matters, she must also live her life with her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane), her domestic maids and her sister Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson), all of them baffled and defeated by her emotionally tormented behavior.

Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a Los Angeles housewife in the 1950s, has begun reading "Mrs. Dalloway." Lonely and unfulfilled in her life with her husband (John C. Reilly), she's surprised at how intensely the novel affects her.

And in the most contemporary segment, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a New Yorker, is about to throw a life-affirmative party for Richard (Ed Harris), a former husband and artist, who is in the final stages of AIDS. Richard, who refuses to play the dying noble victim, tests her already-frayed nerves at every turn.

Clarissa's spiritual connection to this story? She shares the first name of the fictional Mrs. Dalloway and was once nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway. Thirdly, like the other two women, she grapples with issues of death, the burden of staying alive and moral responsibility toward loved ones. There are also lesbian overtones in each story.

(Did the phrase "chick flick" cross your mind? Cast it out! This movie is, quite simply, fascinating storytelling. It's about compelling characters, period.)

In this kind of movie -- in which the same things happen to different people across the ages -- there are occasional moments when the exercise seems wooden and repetitive. "The Hours" is occasionally guilty of this. Sometimes we "get" things a little too easily and it distracts us. But the themes and the acting are so powerful, these lapses are easily bypassed.

Much has been made of the prosthetic nose Kidman wears as Woolf. For my money, it liberates not only Kidman but us. She looks so different from the perky-nosed actor we know so well, we are forced to watch her act without thinking about all that celebrity baggage. During a few moments I thought: "A little touch-up would have helped that thing," but mostly I was lost in her extremely strong performance.

Moore is extraordinarily tender as Laura, grappling with her own sexuality in a time when such thoughts were tantamount to communism. (And what "Hours"-like coincidence that after "Far From Heaven" she's a 1950s housewife again.)

As for Streep, her acting is teacher's-pet brilliant. You can imagine her old acting instructor showing videos to students and saying: "See? This is how you do it." Which, of course, makes you want to slap her with a Martha Stewart cookbook. But in "The Hours," let's be serious, she is great. And she makes sure her segment resonates as strongly as the other two. She's more than helped by Harris, whose ill-tempered, direct Richard is a memorable adversary. You don't just love the movie for its structure but for the haunted people in it, making each other miserable, but forcing each other to face who they are.


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