The Hours Movie Review

Stephen Daldry's The Hours is the quintessential highbrow arthouse picture of the year, the one film critics from the coasts will adore but is guaranteed to alienate audience members more in tune with Maid in Manhattan, Analyze That or The Two Towers.

Consider yourself warned. A Masters degree and a penchant for PBS' Masterpiece Theatre aren't required to fully comprehend and enjoy the picture, but they help. Hours masterfully weaves together three individual stories about three interconnected women existing in three different decades. Mentally ill author Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is on suicide watch in 1920s England as she pens her novel Mrs. Dalloway. Suburban housewife and mother Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) reads the same novel in 1951 as she suffers through a loveless marriage with her WWII veteran husband (John C. Reilly) and overprotected son, Richie (eight-year-old Jack Rovello). And modern day New York City book publisher Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) mirrors the character of Mrs. Dalloway as she plans a party for her dying ex-lover, Richard (Ed Harris), who recently won a literary prize.

Hours just works at its own pace, one commonly seen in most breeds of snails. Not surprisingly, the very British director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) and his equally British screenwriter David Hare have produced the most prim, proper, sophisticated, and stuffy drama to be released in America this year. I'm not sure if author Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning source novel was this pretentious, but he's from Cincinnati, so I'm going to assume it isn't.

Hours has the ability to stimulate, mostly as it unfurls its twisty canvas of ideas. The director employs clever devices to tie his co-existing decades together. The ringing of an alarm clock, the placing of flowers in a vase - all these actions occur simultaneously in each era, and Daldry uses them as springboards to move the action back and forth and avoid continuous continuity dilemmas.

But Daldry lays the symbolism on awfully thick, sensing his audience might have trouble digesting all of the serious themes at play. Young Richie constructs a log cabin and smashes it minutes later, in case you didn't get the fact that his parents occupy a broken home. And Woolf lies on the ground to stare into the black eyes of a dead bird, which seamlessly morphs into Moore's emotionally "dead" Laura Brown.

It doesn't help that the characters in The Hours are virtually inaccessible. All the suicidal-surburban-bipolar-noncommittal-lesbian authors from the early 20th century in the theater will nod their understanding heads in unison. The rest of us may struggle to connect with characters that are kept at an arm's length from us by their extraordinarily dark situations. A somber soundtrack of sobbing string instruments and a laundry list of dysfunctions help us know when to cry, but Hours never fully tells us why. The film conjures some spectacular settings and grown-up topics, but has no story to speak of.

That being said, the film is made bearable by its three powerful leads. Streep stands taller than the rest, fluctuating wildly from manic depressive to exaggeratedly cheerful while her own fabrics come undone. And Kidman, unrecognizable beneath her astounding prosthetics, subtly solidifies the underdeveloped role of Virginia Woolf, the inspiration for the rest of the film. Given the chance to dramatically overact, each actress wisely finds the strength in the small moments of their characters. They're supported by a fine ensemble of male actors, except Rovello, who may be eight but still gives one of the worst kid performances in recent memory.

The Hours has all the makings of an acclaimed novel, one that sits atop the New York Times' best-sellers list for weeks at a time. In fact, it did just that upon release in 1998. As a movie though, it comes up way short. I keep returning to a quote Jeff Daniels - playing another of Richard's ex-lovers - uses to describe Richard's award-winning book to Clarissa. He says, "The whole thing seems to go on for an eternity. Nothing happens. Then wham!" Well, Daniels finishes his review with a detail I'll leave out of mine, to retain some mystery. But even without the coda, his statement describes Hours to a tee.

Editor's Note: You are encouraged to ignore Sean O'Connell's review (see the "Respectfully Yours" redux at right) and check out The Hours on DVD. Fans will eat up the hours (no pun intended) of extras, including four featurettes (the insight into Philip Glass's masterful score is particularly interesting) and two commentary tracks -- one from the three acclaimed actresses and one from Daldry and novelist Michael Cunningham.

So what time is it there?


The Hours Rating

" OK "

Rating: PG-13, 2002


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