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THE HOURS (article first published : 2003-06-1)

If there’s one thing for certain about The Hours, Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry's gruelling and depressing, but captivating, drama about women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, it's that Nicole Kidman – much as I admire her - truly did not deserve to take this year's Oscar as best actress.

Oh, don't get me wrong, she is very good indeed with her scraped-back hair, dowdy clothing, pasty complexion and prosthetic nose, in the role of emaciated, depressed author Virginia Woolf, who contemplates suicide while writing her most famous work, Mrs Dalloway.

But she is so overwhelmingly overshadowed by the superb turns of her co-stars, Julianne Moore and, particularly, Meryl Streep, that it's a sin neither was nominated in the same category as Kidman at the Academy Awards bash.

And it's even more shocking that Moore, surprisingly nominated for The Hours in the supporting category at the Oscars, failed to win over Catherine Zeta-Jones's turn in Chicago.

Daldry's stars, surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast including the ever-impressive Ed Harris, and also Aussie Toni Collette in a knockout cameo, glitter constantly in a film which, albeit delivering weighty themes and slow pacing over 115 minutes, makes for mesmerising drama.

Hopping continually between three stories from a different time and place, and linking them with mundane chores - a ploy hammered a little too heavily in the first half-hour - the film features a screenplay by David Hare. It is based on the novel The Hours by Michael Cunningham, inspired by Woolf's fourth novel, Mrs Dalloway.

The fabric that most binds the three stories, all of which unfurl in a single day, is Woolf's novel. We meet the sickly, slightly off-tilt Woolf (Kidman) in 1923, when she is starting to write the book, which is then read in Los Angeles in 1951 by lonely, depressed and restless housewife and mum, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore). Laura starts to discover some things about herself and her life by reading the novel.

The third story is set in 2001, in New York, where book editor Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), nicknamed Mrs Dalloway, slowly comes to realise she values superficiality more than substance. This happens while she frantically arranges a party for her terminally ill former lover, bisexual poet Richard (Oscar-nominee Ed Harris).

Suicide, or thoughts of suicide, crop up in each tale, while lesbian overtones abound. The bisexual Woolf gives more than a peck on the cheek when saying goodbye to her visiting sister (Miranda Richardson), while something similar happens between Laura and a neighbour (Toni Collette). And Clarissa, whose daughter is played by Claire Danes, is openly lesbian, involved in a relationship with a caring woman called Sally (Alison Janney).

Clearly, knowledge of Woolf and Mrs Dalloway would help one better understand the dramatic complexities and finer details displayed in The Hours, but for the sheer shimmer of its acting luminescence, the discerning film fan cannot afford to miss it.

David Hare's script is intelligent, witty and insightful and director Daldry does a fine job with difficult subject matter, neatly drawing the threads together at the end. A drama of love, loss, survival and madness, the film also features fine performances, in small roles, by Jeff Daniels, as Richard's former lover; Stephan Dillane, as Woolf's firm but concerned husband; and John C Reilly, an Oscar-nominee for Chicago, as Laura's loving but dull husband. My rating: 8/10. - Billy Suter




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