In or about December, 1910, human character changed," Virginia Woolf famously wrote, and her life's mission, you might say, was to record that change. Of all the great modernist writers, perhaps only James Joyce dipped his pen deeper into the new century's stream of consciousness, but it was Woolf who, in the very rhythm of her sentences, captured the movement of that stream ' the flows and counter-flows, eddies and rivulets. Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf's 1925 novel, is awash in allusions; reading it is like going whitewater rafting inside Woolf's mind. It's supposedly the story of a single day in the uneventful life of a woman who, as her name suggests, has dallied away the years of her life. But it's also about World War I and its effect on human character ' British character, anyway. Trapped in the trenches, an entire nation became shell-shocked.
If Mrs. Dalloway is haunted by World War I, Michael Cunningham's 1998 novel, The Hours, is haunted by Mrs. Dalloway. Cunningham, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, wanted to pay homage to Woolf's novel, and he did it by both reimagining it and reincarnating it. Now, instead of one story about a woman in pain, we get three stories about women in pain, including Woolf herself. And instead of bouncing back and forth between Mrs. Dalloway's youth and middle age, we bounce back and forth among Woolf embarking on the writing of a new novel (guess which one), a '50s suburban housewife embarking on a new life and a contemporary book editor in New York who bears a striking resemblance to Mrs. Dalloway. If Woolf's novel is a fantasia, a collection of riffs, Cunningham's is a fugue, each voice assigned its own set of chapters.
Neither novel seemed very suitable to cinematic adaptation, but we've already had a Mrs. Dalloway in which Vanessa Redgrave tried to look bored and interested at the same time, and now here's The Hours, Stephen Daldry's attempt to translate Cunningham's novel to the big screen while leaving all those interior monologues behind. Personally, I wouldn't have left all those interior monologues behind; they're the heart and soul of what can only be called the book's feminine mystique. But given that Daldry has bitten off his nose to spite his face, The Hours is much more watchable than I would have expected. It lacks the novel's intimacy, the sense that we're witnessing the women's thoughts as they formulate. But it makes up for that, somewhat, in the way it threads the three lives together. Scenes echo and rhyme with one another.
The movie opens with Woolf's suicidal descent into that slough of despond, the River Ouse, and it had never occurred to me before just how large was the rock that she placed in her coat pocket. Neither would it have occurred to me, had I not already known, that this was Nicole Kidman playing Virginia Woolf. Kidman, as everyone must have read by now, did the opposite of biting off her nose to spite her face, and although the added latex can be distracting, Kidman's performance gives us everything we need to suspend disbelief. Her Woolf is a birdlike creature, precariously perched on feet that seem of different sizes, so awkwardly does she move about the house. But it must be a bird of prey, for she notices everything, despite often staring at the floor or off into the distance. Both half-mad and fiercely sane, Kidman's Woolf is in the throes of creation.
And her book will reverberate through the years. Julianne Moore's Laura Brown, trapped in a '50s ranch-style house, will use it to ward off a bout of suicidal depression, albeit with sad consequences for her husband and son. And Meryl Streep's Clarissa Vaughan, nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway by a best friend and former lover who's dying of AIDS (Ed Harris, whose skin is stretched across his face like a piece of cellophane), will reenact it, although with sad consequences for herself. The Hours traces so many cosmic connections between these two women and Woolf that you start to believe in the Psychic Friends Network. You also start to wonder exactly what the movie's getting at ' that women, 25 and 75 years later, still needed a room of their own? But doesn't Clarissa have one? And has she not been touched by the women's movement?
Streep digs deep to play this woman who doesn't dig deep, but the result is nevertheless shallow; we simply don't understand either what makes Clarissa tick or what fails to make her tick. Moore doesn't fare much better, walking through the role like a zombie because those interior monologues haven't been converted into exterior dialogues. Laura Brown's chapters in the book are like pages out of The Diary of a Mad Housewife ' sad and scary. In the movie, she seems like a Stepford wife that's gone on the blink. Except for its ponderous, portentous score by Philip Glass, The Hours is made with a great deal of tact. But we might be better off if we could spend the whole time with Kidman's Virginia as she goes quietly, then not so quietly, out of her mind ' no rhyme or reason, just a powerful intellect feeding upon itself.