An acting showcase, 'The Hours' lacks cinematic vision

by Peter Jenks | 1/22/03 6:00am

In these dangerous postmodern days of artistic uncertainty, filmmakers must remain aware that only a near-perfect film can get away with taking itself completely seriously -- anything less and the result is often unnerving.

This problem can take a number of forms. The effect it has in "The Hours," the new film from Stephen Daldry ("Billy Elliot"), is the unsettling ease that results from someone trying very hard to be smart by saying nothing particularly exciting in a rather unremarkable way.

The film, adapted from Michael Cunningham's novel of the same name, centers around one day in the lives of three women. The common bond among them, made apparent very early in the story, is that of Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway."

The connection is obvious in the case of Nicole Kidman's character, Woolf herself, who is in the process of writing the novel. The film opens with a scene of Woolf drowning herself, an appropriately morbid beginning to a morbid film.

As Woolf goes through her day, we witness her strained relationship with her husband, her disregard for social norms and her obsession with her own sister. All this is as she ponders the fate of the characters in her novel-in-progress.

The second main character we are introduced to is Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), who lives with her oh-so-cute son and adoring husband (John C. Reilly). She is pregnant with her second child and is living an acutely tortured existence in 1950s California. In one of Laura's first scenes, we see her consuming Woolf's novel. The day the film covers is Laura's husband's birthday, and she dutifully plays the loving housewife.

Yet once he leaves to work, the already strained relations in the house do not let up. Via a close friend's visit, the film reveals Laura to be a sexually suppressed lesbian who is bitterly trapped in the life of a housewife.

The third protagonist is Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), an editor for a publishing house in present-day New York City. Also a lesbian, Vaughan is busily engaged in planning a party for one of her close friends, Richard Brown (Ed Harris), a poet who has just won the most prestigious award for lifetime achievement in his craft. When Clarissa first enters Richard's apartment, he almost mockingly greets her with his affectionate nickname: "Ah, Mrs. Dalloway, always bringing flowers to cover the silence."

Her reaction is evasive, and as the film unfolds we learn that Richard and Clarissa were lovers in a past life. Richard, now dying of AIDS, has just published a novel -- edited by Clarissa -- which, with the apparent abstruseness and depth of Joyce's "Ulys-ses," is very obviously about her and the life that Richard could have shared with her.

Clarissa ignores the implications of Richard's actual feelings and dismisses the novel as meaningless fantasy. Her forced obliviousness is highlighted in her obsessive planning for the night's party, mirroring Mrs. Dalloway, the perpetual hostess, in Woolf's novel. The act holds up for a while, but as Clarissa's past refuses to let her be, she begins to crack under the pressure.

The movie portrays the lives of the three women in a showy montage, cutting their days up in order to make obvious reference to the fact that the three women are all versions of the same tortured character. Unfortunately, the film tries too hard, and at times the similarities in the lives of the women are almost painfully obvious, and the viewer is left wondering what is left to figure out.

Ultimately, the film falls victim to its script (an adaptation by David Hare), which is by turns either too deep or too simple, always narrowly missing that realm known as poignancy and slipping into the common territory of cliche.

One of the most puzzling lines in the movie is spoken by Woolf. In a climactic scene between her and her husband, Woolf insists that "You cannot find peace by avoiding life." At the same time, the film both opens and closes with the scene of Woolf's suicide. The viewer is left wondering whether the film is intentionally highlighting Woolf's hopeless idealism or is rather deliberately painting her as a hypocrite.

Despite the disappointments of "The Hours," the film is very well made.

The camera-work makes excellent use of close-ups, although it is otherwise rather unremarkable.

The acting, though, is the brightest spot in the film. While Streep does a fantastic job with Clarissa, the character still seems a bit too similar to quite a few of Streep's others, and in many ways she is just sticking with what she's good at.

Kidman makes the most of her disappointingly flat character. While she portrays Woolf's insecurities with skill, her acting is subject to the script and to Daldry, who succumbs to a rather unfortunate bend for the melodramatic.

Moore is nothing short of phenomenal. Laura Brown is far and away the film's most interesting character, and the depth of Moore's acting is remarkable. From the forced air behind the niceties she puts on for her husband to her dysfunctional relationship with her son, she never misses a beat. Nothing less has come to be expected from Moore, however, who is consistently proving herself to be one of the best actresses of her generation.

Another treat is Harris, whose tragic depiction of angst-ridden Richard may have put him on track for a second supporting-actor Oscar.

"The Hours" is a film about love and death. But in the end, the love portrayed therein seems empty and the deaths pointless. When the film valiantly tries to tie everything together at its coda, the viewer is left wondering what substance really lies beneath the picture's philosophizing.

The answer is that while "The Hours" is a beautifully executed film, it fails in its attempt to explain the meaning of life by evoking the worn ideas of deep love and tragic death, and we're left with their echo within its own vast emptiness.