Hours, The

The Hours (12A)

Any film that begins with the suicide of its central character has to be braver than the average movie, and such is the case with The Hours, Stephen Daldry’s follow-up to Billy Elliot.

Yet while this one could well clean up at the Oscars next month, boasting not one but three strong roles for women, it remains a plodding and overly ‘worthy’ picture that relies heavily on an audience’s knowledge of literature and the life histories of the people behind some of the great novels of history.

The Hours begins with the death of Virginia Woolf, a depressive who helpfully crams the pockets of her dress with pebbles in order to sink beneath the waters of a river. Set in 1923, 1941 and 2001, the story jumps between the painful stories of three unhappy women in three different eras. All are lonely, sensitive women linked, in the strangest, most tenuous manner, through Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway.

Woolf is played, in famous fashion, by Nicole Kidman in a false nose and sans make-up in a frumpy, shapeless dress and big hair. Hers is the plum role and the planet around which the other satellites revolve. But the lesser roles – the Forties housewife and the 21st century publisher – are handled by two other great actors: Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep.

Kidman proves she has the makings of greatness in her portrayal of Woolf – a world-weary fatalist kept under semi house arrest by her desperate husband (Stephen Dillane). All that is seemingly left for her is to scribble away at her new book, yearning for inspiration and finding it lacking. Nineteen years later, in the year of her death, Moore finds herself longing for meaning in an emotionless marriage to a good but boring man (John C. Reilly, the ubiquitous star of Gangs of New York, Chicago and now this). She loses her self in a novel – Mrs Dalloway – and searches for a reason not to take her life.

Sixty years later Streep finds herself planning a party to celebrate the success of her former lover’s book. He’s now locked in his apartment and ravaged with AIDS. A party is the last thing he wants or needs but, like Mrs Dalloway in the book, she ploughs on with her plans. Ed Harris plays the bitter writer, equally wracked by illness and self-loathing.

The interlocking nature of the story, and the vignettes contained therein, are directed by Daldry like separate parts of a portmanteau film, with the obvious links never over emphasised. Daldry’s real triumph here is in the way he has attracted such a stellar cast – other actors in this ensemble piece include Claire Danes, Miranda Richardson, Toni Colette, Alison (The West Wing) Janney, Jeff Daniels and the excellent British thesp Eileen Atkins, who wrote the 1997 film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway – and used his theatre aesthetic to tell the multi-layered story. Such is his power and magnetism.

While the picture is to be applauded for offering its largely female cast some of the finest opportunities of their careers – and Kidman is tremendous in her underplaying of Woolf – it will nevertheless be inaccessible to those whose knowledge of Woolf and her work is minimal.

The Hours is a must-see movie on the basis of its cast and pedigree, yet it is immensely slow moving, seeming to drag every word from the page with broken fingers. Scholars of literature will love it, as will lovers of great theatre who will see in the principals’ performances hints of genuine stage greatness. Mainstream audiences, however, may well see through the ‘King’s New Clothes’ attitudes of critics, and stay away in droves. Only time will tell.

Star rating: ***

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