Kidman Stares Down the Woolf in 'The Hours'

— Nicole Kidman's extraordinary performance in "The Hours," the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, is getting unanimous, unqualified raves. The New Yorker hailed her performance as Virginia Woolf as "a revelation." The New York Times praised it as "a performance of astounding bravery." The Village Voice gushed: "It's an astonishing Kidman who contributes the film's -- and maybe the year's -- most inspired turn."

"The Hours," opening Friday, depicts the emotional struggles of three women in various eras: A '50s Los Angeles housewife (Julianne Moore), tormented by her inability to cope with the simple requirements of life, finds solace in Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway." A book editor (Meryl Streep) in contemporary New York, dubbed "Mrs. Dalloway" by her closest friend and former lover, helplessly watches him succumb to AIDS-related dementia. Seemingly deciding their destinies even as she struggles with her own is the emotionally fragile Woolf. The film opens with her 1941 suicide, and subsequent scenes flash back to 1923, as she begins writing "Mrs. Dalloway."

Kidman's portrayal of Woolf is a real departure for the Australian actress -- whose performances in three recent films had already expanded our perception of what she can do. In Baz Luhrmann's flashy musical "Moulin Rouge," she portrayed a singing, dancing French courtesan. In Alejandro Amenabar's classy horror excursion "The Others," she played a brittle English mother who seems overprotective of her two young children. Both films did impressive box-office numbers. Less successful but no less engaging was her terrific turn in Jez Butterworth's dark comedy "Birthday Girl," in which she played a crafty Russian (and Russian-speaking) mail-order bride.

The acclaim must seem a little sweeter given the hard knocks Kidman has sustained in the past couple of years. Early in 2001, just after their 10th anniversary, Kidman's husband, Tom Cruise, unceremoniously dumped her for his "Vanilla Sky" co-star, Penelope Cruz. The breakup of Hollywood's most visible couple and Kidman's subsequent miscarriage were played and replayed in excruciating detail in the gossip pages.

A decade ago, Kidman had seemed a storybook princess. She became a star in Australia while still in her teens, and soon after she sought work in America, she attracted the attention of heartthrob Cruise. When they married in 1990, she ascended to Hollywood royalty.

Now her life resembles a different kind of story. And those who find themselves moved by the triumphs and tribulations of celebrities may find the new Nicole Kidman even more inspiring. Badly hurt, the 35-year-old actress has managed to pick herself up, put her life together again, and learn to value life's possibilities. "I got married when I was 22, and that was it. I was going to be married for the rest of my life," she says. "Now everything has been turned around, and I'm sort of just looking around the corner to see what's ahead."

Her hair is pulled up and back, with artfully placed strawberry blond wisps that float around her face. Her porcelain skin sets off her eyes, which are a vivid, almost disconcerting blue. As the stooped, colorless Woolf, Kidman is virtually unrecognizable; she wore a prosthetic nose for the role, but she prefers not to get into the details of how she was physically altered.

A revered author and feminist, Woolf provided one of the most intimidating roles Kidman has undertaken. "She's iconic, and she's so brilliant," she says. Kidman says she was also in awe of British actress Eileen Atkins, who has famously portrayed Woolf on stage and screen and makes a cameo in "The Hours" as a flower shop proprietor. "Eileen Atkins has played her so beautifully and is really, I think, the expert on Virginia. And then for me to step into those shoes was" -- Kidman breathes in sharply -- "I hope I'm not going to be crucified."

To prepare for the role, Kidman pored over Woolf's books and letters. She read Hermione Lee's esteemed biography, as well as books on Woolf's relationships with her husband, Leonard (portrayed by Stephen Dillane in the film), and her sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson). Woolf's letters were "a key to her, because they're quite mischievous, some of them, and very candid and at times quite brutal," says Kidman. "I also listened to some of her recordings of her voice, which I then chose not to really use because I just wanted to find the voice myself, so that it wasn't me trying to do Virginia's voice."

The tall, strapping Kidman may not seem the most obvious choice for playing Woolf, but director Stephen Daldry says there were other considerations besides physical appearance. "One of the things about Virginia Woolf as a real person is that she was both incredibly courageous, dangerous, subversive, hugely intelligent, from all accounts incredibly charming, with a huge sense of fun and play -- all qualities you could link to Nicole Kidman," he says.

But there is, perhaps, another reason why Kidman's Woolf is widely regarded as her greatest screen performance to date. "The Hours" was the first film Kidman worked on after her split from Cruise, and she was able to channel her own anguish into her portrayal of Woolf, who was plagued by mental illness. "Your life feeds you," says Kidman. "Where you're at and all of that. If you are willing to access it and willing to use it, the possibility sort of is endless."

Years ago in school, Kidman had read Virginia Woolf but was unmoved. When she read "Mrs. Dalloway" again, she says, "I went, ah, I'm open to receive this now. Just the way in which she deals with the frailty of all of us, the struggle in the simple daily events of our lives, but how enormous that struggle can be. ... That struggle of getting up and making a bed and making a cake can be monumental, depending on psychologically where you are and emotionally where you are. I think Virginia understood all of that. ... I love that she did struggle, and she put that into her work. You can see her intellect and her frailty and the mix of it."

In one of Kidman's favorite scenes, Virginia and Leonard are sitting by a fire in the evening. "There's such an intimacy there, and you feel their connection," says Kidman. Virginia has been trying to decide which of the novel's characters she will kill off, and Leonard asks her why someone has to die. Virginia replies that someone must die so "that the rest of us should value life more."

"That's so true. It's contrast," says Kidman. "You have to have all of your experiences in order to have a life, in order to say, "Well, this is me happy because I've experienced the other side -- I've seen the black dog, as Churchill would say.' "

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