The Hours 

(PG-13) 4 stars

(PG-13) 4 stars
The Hours begins and ends with the 1941 suicide of Virginia Woolf, as she slips a heavy stone into her pocket and wades into the murky River Ouse, drifting gracefully away from a life she no longer wants to live. Woolf"s suicide bookends a day in the life of three women: Woolf herself, 20 years earlier, crackling with bird-like energy as she writes the first pages of her seminal novel Mrs. Dalloway; Laura Brown, a pregnant 1950s Los Angeles housewife who lingers in bed reading Mrs. Dalloway and contemplating suicide; and Clarissa Vaughn, a harried, urbane book editor in present-day New York who begins her morning as does Woolf"s Mrs. Dalloway, going out to buy the flowers for a party she plans to give in the evening. Based closely on Michael Cunningham"s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the structure of The Hours is at once beautifully simple and richly complex. A series of cuts from one time to the next establishes continuity between the three women"s lives as we watch them go about their daily routines. Woolf (Nicole Kidman) shuts herself in her study with a supply of coffee and cigarettes and puts pen to paper; Laura (Julianne Moore) awkwardly sends her doting husband off to work and tries to pull herself together enough to bake a cake for his birthday party; while Clarissa (Meryl Streep) visits her best friend Richard (Ed Harris), a brilliant, mad poet, his mind and body ravaged by AIDS, who is about to receive a prestigious literary award. Though several extraordinary moments will take place before the film"s end, these are, in large part, perfectly ordinary days, and the three principal actresses wisely play them as such, giving measured, often exquisitely understated performances, one of which is likely to win the Oscar. The supporting cast (Miranda Richardson as Virginia"s sister Vanessa, John C. Reilly as Laura"s husband, Stephen Dillane as Leonard Woolf) is spot-on as well. The Hours" only misstep is the incessant hammering of the Philip Glass score, which detracts from the big scenes and over-intensifies the quieter ones. Much has been made of the queerness of many of the characters (Woolf was bisexual, Clarissa is a lesbian, Laura kisses a female neighbor), but what director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) is emphasizing is not homosexuality itself, but rather the mutability of desire, and the passions we all subsume in order to maintain the status quo and fulfill our daily duties to others. Three characters try to end their lives before the day is through; two succeed. Two from the second timeframe will appear in the third, with devastating consequences. Despite several dark, difficult scenes that seemed off-putting to many in the screening audience, The Hours is not so much about death as it is about life. When asked by her husband Leonard why she was planning to have one of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway commit suicide, Woolf responds presciently, "Someone has to die so that the rest of us will value life more."

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