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Running Out of Room: The pressures of marriage drive Julianne Moore to the brink of desperation in 'The Hours.'

Domestic Demons

Julianne Moore reads Virginia Woolf as she fears the emotional wolves at the door in 'The Hours'

By Richard von Busack

WHEN A movie ad features a funny kangaroo, movie lovers know what they're up against. However, the pastel and powdery TV trailers for The Hours represent an egregious bait-and-switch tactic. The Hours is being marketed as a flaccid hugfest--that ultra-chick flick that haunts the nightmares of male football fans everywhere. Despite the ads, however, the film is actually about fatal despair in two trapped women and one trapped man, over which love can hardly hope to prevail. It is "life-affirming" only in the sense of the phrase "There but for the grace of God ..."

Stephen Daldry's film is based on Michael Cunningham's novel, a postmodern reflection on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, which is essentially about a day in the life of a middle-aged woman inwardly regretting the chance for happiness that she missed. The Hours is also about the answering chords Woolf's novel strikes in readers, mostly female, over the course of the 20th century.

The film takes place in three eras, all radically different in manners and styles. A hidden thread connects 1920s London, 1950s L.A. and Clinton boom-era New York City. This complex loop of time encompasses 70 years and is double-knotted with a pair of suicides; one of them is Woolf's suicide in 1941, which opens the film, immediately before we flashback to the author's life in London in the 1920s.

Baffled? Often movies take place in one spot for 50 or 100 years. Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons is as much about the Amberson mansion as it is about the generations rising and dying in it. In the recent film Possession, couples spaced 100 years apart occupied an almost unchanged hotel room. And in the upcoming Russian Ark, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is haunted by 300 years worth of people.

In The Hours, characters separated by time and place share a common emotional ground. Their stories are all connected by Philip Glass' music, which repeats its themes in the same way the text of the film does. Only truly strong music can keep the three tales from whirling apart.

The expert braiding of these three tales doesn't mean they are all of equal interest. The first concerns the under-the-skin terrors of a severe and flinchy Virginia Woolf, played by Nicole Kidman with a false nose that makes her look like the folk singer Ferron.

Woolf is biliously pregnant with Mrs. Dalloway. Her sister Vanessa (Miranda Richardson) turns up, with children in tow; the visit is aggravating for Woolf, whose constant battle with depression is flaring up. Woolf's doctors have ordered her to live in Richmond, a quiet London suburb that she loathes. It is her decision, finally, to escape this genteel boredom that serves as the turning point of the episode.

There's a certain mean Gothic fun to be had in listening to the twanging nerves of this high-strung novelist, but Kidman hardly gives a classic performance. Kidman's elevation to major-star status by the press is baffling; divining her dark side is like savoring the multitude of flavors in a bite of cottage cheese. Moreover, Woolfian angst onscreen always looks like the Smith & Hawken catalog. A viewer might think, "If I must be unhappy, let me be unhappy in the perfect English cottage garden."

In the last sequence, Meryl Streep plays Clarissa, a woman of the 1990s, a hostess in the same way Clarissa Dalloway was. It's a standard Streep part, full of upper-middle-class dithering, and screenwriter David Hare's snobbery and theatricality bleed through it. Clarissa is in a comfortable bed-dead lesbian relationship with Sally (Alison Janney). Her real vocation is as self-appointed cheerer-upper to her ex-husband, a prize-winning poet holed up in his loft, who is dying (and longing to die). His AIDS dementia is made to rhyme with Woolf's fight against her own madness.

Ed Harris plays the poet, and speaking of noses, Harris is as on the nose as a rhinoplasty. No loft is vast enough for his raging against the dying of the light; nor could there be an entire co-op big enough to contain the irony of Clarissa being so blind herself to her undying love for her former husband. The resolution of the episode involved a bit of business that would have been every bit as compelling onstage as it is utterly stagey onscreen.

Why see The Hours, then? Do see it for the central episode. Here the vapors of Woolf clear to reveal a woman in great unhappiness, perishing for the need of a room of her own.

This segment focuses on Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), an L.A. housewife in 1951. She spends her day reading Mrs. Dalloway and trying to decide whether or not to take an overdose of sleeping pills. The exact cause of her desperation isn't scrawled out for us (as it is in the other two episodes), nor does it really have to be.

John C. Reilly plays Laura's husband, Dan. Homely is as homely does, and Reilly, when playing some drag of a hubby, always plays his own homeliness up.

But unlike in the other two sequences, where we have a good idea of the exact reason for Streep's and Kidman's displeasure, Moore's particular reason for wanting to die is unclear. Is she a lesbian--as you might guess, since Clarissa Dalloway maundered all her life about that one time she kissed a girl? Is it just the suburbs that are driving her nuts, in the same way they were getting under Woolf's skin?

In Far From Heaven, it took a lot of poise on Moore's part to keep poor Connecticut Cathy from looking like a blue-blooded twit. In a second viewing, I caught what I'd missed: the many ways Moore wasn't honoring the Hollywood studio conventions of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Some things Jane Wyman wouldn't have done in the part: Cathy's guttural panting with fear after discovering her husband in the fatal clinch with another man, the unexpected blurting out of a muttered "You're beautiful" to her African American gardener. Despite these scraps of Moore's heart arranged on the fine china of Todd Haynes' film, Far From Heaven is just sophisticated and lovely. By contrast, Moore's segment of The Hours is an experience in terror.

Once upon a time, I thought my own hard-drinking mom had killed herself. I went to wake her on a Sunday morning (she'd been closing down the bars the night before). She wouldn't be woken up, and had left some notes to herself by the side of the bed. I could see the words "I don't know how to go on" in pencil on the pad next to her bed.

I stood frozen for a minute before finally rousing her. It turned out to be nothing. She had just been drinking. The note was merely the kind of maudlin journal writing that anyone under the influence might scrawl down before sleep overtook her. The saying goes "It was like the ground opened before me" or "It was like an abyss opening at my feet."

Watching Moore in The Hours, I remembered that morning. Sharpening the panic, turning the scene from drama to horror, is the other person in the composition. Laura's child is home for the day in his pajamas--he may be the witness; he may take the rap on himself, as children of suicides usually do. As Laura wades through the day, she tries to jolly her son along. He sees something drastically wrong in his mom but is too young to put it into words. His eyes are always on her.

It's the day of Laura's husband's birthday. This is the last straw: celebrating it will be too much for her. Things get even worse after a visit from a fellow housewife, Kitty (Toni Collette, permed into curls and looking like Norma Jean Baker right before she became Marilyn Monroe). Kitty is the woman Laura loves--in whatever fashion; Kitty can't reciprocate, in any fashion.

Domestic horror is a Moore specialty. She plays an unhappily married woman in Short Cuts, where she turns like a Valkyrie on her needling husband. In World Traveler, she is kind of a Montana version of La Lloronada, the Crying Woman, the specter of mourning motherhood from Mexican folklore.

Moore's emotions break through the passive voice of Virginia Woolf, the stagy precision of Streep, the pedantry of David Hare--she even smashes through the film's clever machinery. What Moore gives us here is something as personally frightening as Lillian Gish under siege by fate in a D.W. Griffith melodrama, and I can't praise her higher than that.


The Hours (PG-13; 114 min.), directed by Stephen Daldry, written by David Hare and starring Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, plays at selected theaters.


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