Directed by Stephen Daldry starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Stephen Dillane, John C Reilly, Ed Harris, Miranda Richardson, Jack Rovello, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Allison Janney and Jeff Daniels.
Three women, separated by decades, but linked by a book and one crucial day in each of their lives. In 1921 Virginia Woolf (Kidman) is starting her novel 'Mrs Dalloway' and fighting off writer's block and the anxious care of husband Leonard (Dillane). Thirty years later California housewife Laura Brown (Moore) is reading the book as she becomes overwhelmed by motherhood (to Rovello) and the mundanity of her marriage (to Reilly). And in the present day New York book editor and socialite Clarissa Vaughan (Streep) is organising a party for her former lover Richard (Harris), an acclaimed poet who is dying of AIDS. Now living with another woman (Janney), Clarissa clings on to Richard as the bridge back to the promise of her younger years while trying to convince herself that this is as good as it gets.
The praise heaped on Daldry for 'Billy Elliot' will be put in the shadows after what he has achieved here. Juggling three stories, he - and scriptwriter David Hare - have worked Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a moving study of how people face up to love and death, sacrifice and freedom. For some, the sense of lives about to boil over running through the whole film might be tough going, but the poignancy of every scene is also offset by the feeling of uplift as people come to accept things for what they are.
There never seems to be a line out of place in 'The Hours' and while Kidman, Moore and Streep are the focus, they are backed up by a really strong cast to bounce their dilemmas off. The male supporting characters in each story seem to be holding the trio back from getting on with their lives and watching each woman's struggle not only provides us with the insights into the search for personal sovereignty but also the evolution of gender politics. Woolf's brief kiss with her sister later becomes a far more intimate one between Moore's character and her neighbour (Collette) while when we reach 2001, Streep's Clarissa - the modern day 'Mrs Dalloway' - has achieved personal and professional freedom in society's eyes, though perhaps not in her own. The idea that one is writing the book, another reading it and the third living it is excellently handled and the actions which are replicated in each other story provide a brilliant link through the past(s) to the present.
For viewers, one story in the triangle may prove more moving that the other two. Of the three, Streep's feels the most complete, but given that the film was shot chronologically and has characters crossing over from another story that's not surprising. Her scenes with Harris, where two people know each other as they once were, have a power mirrored in those between Kidman and Dillane. Moore's struggle as Laura is more introspective, with Reilly lacking the nous to realise his wife is dying inside.
It seems a shame that with Streep so strong and Moore onscreen for longer, Kidman should receive the most attention. But with the physical transformation she has undergone it could hardly be any other way. Some have said she looks nothing like the real Woolf, but the fact that she looks nothing like herself either and your feeling that you're not watching the actress you know makes her performance all the more captivating. On receiving her BAFTA award, she spoke of splitting it in three and the feeling you are watching parts of a whole grows ever stronger as the film progresses.
Aside from recognising the talent onscreen and off, the greatest thing about 'The Hours' haul of Oscar nominations is that it will encourage a much wider audience to go and see it and figure on their memories afterwards. And perhaps you'll be reminded of the scene where Woolf worries whether her work will live on and say to yourself that Daldry should never trouble himself with such a thought.