Such is the case with Stephen Daldry's The Hours, a movie so chockablock with talent that it generates award fever the way the Hoover Dam generates electricity. Everything about this production says Oscar. Even the small parts are played by stars. But maybe because our expectations are so very high, at some level this picture fails to satisfy the way we want.
Adapted from Michael Cunningham's novel by noted playwright David Hare, whose earlier screen credits include the scripts for Damage and Plenty, The Hours is the story of Virginia Woolf at work in 1923 on her masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway and the story as well of two other women whose lives are subsequently influenced by the novel. Mrs. Dalloway endeavors to communicate a woman's entire life through her activities on a single day. This film strives to reflect the entire lives of three women by looking at one day in each of their lives. And maybe that's too much to ask of a two-hour movie.
Woolf (an unrecognizable and brilliant Nicole Kidman), we are reminded, committed suicide in 1941 by putting stones in her coat and wading into a river. But on the day at hand, she writes, bosses her domestic servants, entertains her sister (Miranda Richardson) and fusses with her husband (Stephen Dillane) over his decision to live in the country rather than London. She seems just about the unhappiest person on the planet.
Then we meet pregnant housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) in 1951 Los Angeles. Laura sees her chatty husband (John C. Reilly) off to work. With her bright-eyed 5-year-old son at her side, she bakes a cake for her husband's birthday. Then, in a scene connected to the rest of the narrative only in reemphasizing that being female can really suck, Laura has coffee with a friend (Toni Collette), who divulges that she needs emergency surgery for a growth on her uterus. Sometimes Laura reads a few pages of Mrs. Dalloway, but mostly she contemplates taking all the pills in her medicine cabinet. Laura has lots of pills, but none of them, evidently, is an effective anti-depressant.
In 2001 New York, book editor Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is planning a dinner party for her friend Richard (Ed Harris), who has just won a prize for his poetry. Referencing the first name she shares with Woolf's title character, Richard calls Clarissa "Mrs. Dalloway" as a teasing testament to her skills as a hostess. Unfortunately, Richard is dying of AIDS and isn't sure he can attend Clarissa's party. Eventually, we learn that Clarissa and Richard were once lovers. And though they've both been involved in other relationships since, mostly homosexual relationships we gather, they haven't really gotten over their long-ago affair. Richard says that he clings to life only because Clarissa wants him to. Clarissa regards her time with Richard as the only really happy period in her life. Maybe that's why there's some unspoken tension between Clarissa and her current companion Sally Lester (Allison Janney). Or maybe it's just because nobody in this movie has taken enough puppy uppers.
Smart-aleck remarks aside, there is much to commend in this somber film. The acting deserves all the praise it's been getting, and the parade to the awards podium has already commenced at the recent Golden Globes. The women are terrific, and Harris is every bit their equal. The picture offers sage advice about the fleeting nature of happiness and knowing comments about the ways a writer uses her own experiences as the raw material for her fictional constructs. Bits of dialogue provide such aphoristic jewels as, "You cannot find peace by avoiding life." And despite its universally depressive atmosphere, the film holds your interest and in the end even delivers a surprise or two.
But The Hours nowhere provides adequate explanations for why its characters are so beset with the moody blues. From everything we can tell, Virginia, Laura and Clarissa all have loving, long-suffering partners. We know that the historic Virginia Woolf killed herself. This film makes patently clear that Virginia is unhappy, but we don't know why. Exactly the same is true of Laura. Yes, she lives in suburban ticky-tack where everything looks the same. And yes, we see that she is battling her demons mightily. But what are her demons? Each of the three women share a long kiss with another woman (Virginia with her sister!). Are we to see Virginia and Laura's problems as stemming from repressed homosexuality? If so, since she's been in a committed lesbian relationship for 10 years, what are we to make of Clarissa's unhappiness? In short, lots of questions in this movie, and like the missing prescriptions for Prozac, too few answers.