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THE HOURS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Ed Harris, John C. Reilly, Stephen Dillane, Allison Janney, Miranda Richardson, Claire Danes, Toni Collette
Director:  Stephen Daldry
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.0, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  See Review
Length:  114 Minutes
Release Date:  June 24, 2003

“A woman's whole life in a single day…just one day.  And in that day, her whole life…”

Film ****

When you finally see a movie and it not only meets but exceeds all of your expectations, that's about as perfect a filmgoing experience as you can ask for.  The Hours was one of the most talked about, critically lauded and awarded films of last year, yet nothing you've heard about it will actually prepare you for the experience of seeing it with your own eyes.

It's complex, but never confusing, subtle, yet emotionally pure, and best of all, always surprising.  It reminds me of two other films I love a great deal:  Magnolia, in how it weaves separate stories that seem to connect only because of strange and possibly inexplicable coincidences, and Memento, in that once the picture ends, you're ready to go back through it again and pick up the bread crumbs you know you probably missed. 

But it takes on a unique life of its own.  There are three different stories set in three different time periods and focused on three different women, but there is first and foremost a universal connector in the novel Mrs. Dalloway.  In the 1920s, Virginia Woolf (Kidman, in her Oscar and Golden Globe winning performance) is writing it.  In the 50s, Laura Brown (Moore) is reading it.  In our modern time, Clarissa Vaughan (Streep) is living it.

“Always the years between us…”

Mrs. Dalloway is a deliciously rich and admittedly frustrating novel with no chapters that follows a day in the life of a woman as she prepares for and throws a party.  On the outside, she's the perfect hostess, but on the inside, she's a sad and lonely soul.  Her creator, Ms. Woolf, was a manic depressive in the days before medicines existed to combat such a disorder.  She attempted suicide three times, and was successful the third.  She led two lives: in her healthy state, she was a determined feminist and a brilliant writer.  In her depressed times, she was an emotional wreck ready to implode.

Laura also leads two lives.  On the surface, she's a typical 50s housewife and mother.  Her husband Dan (Reilly) is beaming and loving, and living his version of the American dream, never guessing at the threat to his family's happiness lurking underneath the surface.  As we spend this day with Laura and her small son, which mostly entails attempts to prepare for her husband's birthday, we feel more and more that something isn't right with her.

And of course, Clarissa has a double life of her own.  Like Mrs. Dalloway, she's preparing the perfect party, but for her celebrated poet ex-husband, Richard (Harris), who is also dying of AIDS.  Over the course of her day, we will learn not only about their history together and apart, but the heartbreak simmering just underneath her surface as well.

“Always the years…”

In good faith, I can't go into more story detail, as much as I so want to discuss it.  As I mentioned, this is a film that surprises.  There are more than just coincidences and a novel that connect these women across the decades.  On the surface, each woman hides deep pains, explore or entertain unusual relationships, and worry that they cause the men in their lives more sorrow than happiness.  But there's much more at work here, and the subtle layering of emotions earns our investments.  This is one of the most quietly and profoundly moving pictures I've seen in some time.

“Always the love…”

Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize winning novel was realized with intelligence, clarity and courage by director Stephen Daldry, but he was greatly aided by an absolute dream of a cast.  Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep are individually A-list actresses that are capable of carrying a film like this alone; put them together, and there is magic even greater that the sum of the incredible parts.  Each has done remarkable work in the past, and will do so again, but I'll wager that The Hours will always remain a specifically singular achievement in all of their careers.

And in a “woman's” story, there is even a rich pool of male supporting talent at work here.  John C. Reilly and Stephen Dillane are pitch perfect as differently devoted husbands, but even more noteworthy is Ed Harris, looking surprisingly weak and sickly, and delivering one of his finest performances.  And I haven't even touched upon the appearances of Claire Danes, Toni Collette, Jeff Daniels, Allison Janney and Miranda Richardson.  For a relatively low-budgeted film, that makes up an ensemble that's worth its weight in gold.

Simply put, I can't recommend this film strongly enough.  It's the rare movie that's both visceral and literal, both cinematic and literary, both supremely intelligent and sincerely emotional.  It's no by-the-numbers tearjerker, but a rich and compelling and stylistically daring character study of three women in three progressively different times facing similar emotional crises over the course of a single day and getting through them each according to whatever strengths and resources afforded them.

“Always…the hours…”

Video ****

This film has a visual style that reflects upon its dark undercurrents with a certain amount of dimness, which would seem to make for a problem in transferring to DVD.  Yet this anamorphic offering from Paramount not only meets the challenge, it obliterates it.  Despite restricted lighting making for extra shadows and darkness, none of the images suffer from grain, break-up or murkiness.  Details are crisp and clean and sharp throughout, and colors even come across with integrity despite the frequently withheld light.  It's a serviceably stylistic touch, and in this case, it brings out the best in the DVD medium.

Audio ***

The soundtrack features no subwoofer signal, but given the dialogue oriented nature of the picture, it isn't missed.  The music and emotionally potent scenes are what brings out the dynamic range in the audio, and a couple of river sequences help open up the front and rear stages a little more.  A clean, clear listening experience with no noticeable flaws.

Features ****

Three of our most remarkable actresses come together for a dream commentary track on this DVD.  Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep, recorded separately but edited together seamlessly, offer their thoughts on the story, their characters, and more.  Despite a few gaps here and there, this kind of track is a rare opportunity for movie lovers.

For a more narratively focused commentary, there is a second one featuring director Stephen Daldry and novelist Michael Cunningham.  Daldry also offers a film introduction.  Four production featurettes respectively focus on the three main actresses, Virginia Woolf herself, the terrific music by Philip Glass, and a conversation with both Cunningham and Oscar nominated screenwriter David Hare.

Rounding out is a trailer and previews for other Paramount titles.

Summary:

The Hours is the kind of film that doesn't come around very often.  Imaginatively written, superbly adapted, beautifully acted and intelligently directed, it takes an unusual approach in bringing out the hearts of three remarkable characters, and subtly bringing out an emotional purity that most movies don't even dare to dream about.  This was last year's true best picture…unequivocally recommended.