In ''The Hours'' Nicole Kidman tunnels like a ferret into the soul of a woman besieged by excruciating bouts of mental illness. As you watch her wrestle with the demon of depression, it is as if its torment has never been shown on the screen before. Directing her desperate, furious stare into the void, her eyes not really focusing, Ms. Kidman, in a performance of astounding bravery, evokes the savage inner war waged by a brilliant mind against a system of faulty wiring that transmits a searing, crazy static into her brain.
But since that woman is the English writer Virginia Woolf (a prosthetic nose helps Ms. Kidman achieve an uncanny physical resemblance), her struggle is a losing battle. On March 28, 1941, Woolf, hounded by inner voices while in the throes of her fourth breakdown, put a stone in her pocket and drowned herself in the Ouse River near the English country house she shared with her husband, Leonard. And in the opening scene of ''The Hours,'' the eloquent, somber screen adaptation of Michael Cunningham's meditation on that suicide (it won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for fiction), Woolf scrawls an anguished farewell letter to her husband, then hurries into the muddy water like Joan of Arc embracing the fire, accompanied by the churning, ethereal strains of Philip Glass's score.
The deeply moving film, directed by Stephen Daldry (''Billy Elliot'') from a screenplay by David Hare that cuts to the bone, is an amazingly faithful screen adaptation of a novel that would seem an unlikely candidate for a movie. A delicate, layered reflection that skips around through time, ''The Hours,'' which opens today in New York, is Mr. Cunningham's homage to Woolf's first great novel, ''Mrs. Dalloway,'' published in 1925.
Woolf's novel details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a conventional upper-class Englishwoman giving a party, who experiences nagging intimations of the more adventurous life she might have led. On the same day, Septimus Warren Smith, a character in the novel whom she never meets but with whom she shares some of the same observations, commits suicide. Five years ago ''Mrs. Dalloway'' was adapted into a shallow, unsatisfying film starring Vanessa Redgrave. In accomplishing the virtually impossible feat of bringing to the screen that novel's introspective essence, the director and the screenwriter of ''The Hours'' have righted a wrong, albeit by proxy, through Mr. Cunningham's intuitive channeling.
A central idea animating ''Mrs. Dalloway'' and embodied in its stream-of-consciousness language is that people who never meet, like Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, are connected by experiencing the same external events. ''The Hours'' extends that idea through the decades to celebrate the timelessness of great literature by placing the author, her fictional alter ego and two of her latter-day readers in the same sphere of consciousness.
Interweaving flashbacks from Woolf's life as she was writing ''Mrs. Dalloway'' with scenes from the lives of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a Southern California housewife and mother in 1951, and Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a New York book editor living in contemporary Greenwich Village, their stories blend into a lofty, mystical theme and variations on Woolf's novel.
Laura, who is depressed and agitated, is reading ''Mrs. Dalloway'' on the same day she is baking a birthday cake for her husband, Dan (John C. Reilly), a blunt, hale World War II veteran who dotes on her and barely notices her anguish. Observing and absorbing Laura's distress is her timid, fiercely clinging young son, Richie (Jack Rovello). While baking the cake, Laura receives a surprise visit from a brightly perky neighbor, Kitty (Toni Collette), who is about to go into the hospital to be tested for cancer and admits she's frightened.
Meanwhile, in New York, Clarissa Vaughan (named after Woolf's character) is planning a celebration for her closest friend, Richard Brown (Ed Harris), a poet in the advanced stages of AIDS who has just won a prestigious award. As the movie folds these stories together, it emerges that Richard is Laura's grown-up son. And in a huge risk that pays off, the movie gives the dying poet a sudden flashback to the scared little boy he was (and fundamentally still is). Another bold surreal touch imagines Laura lying on a bed that's suddenly engulfed by the river that took Woolf.
Clarissa and Richard were lovers when they were younger, but both eventually chose partners of the same sex. Richard had a long affair with Louis Waters (Jeff Daniels), now a college professor in San Francisco, who shows up for the celebration of the award. Clarissa has lived for years with a woman, Sally Lester (Allison Janney), and has a college-age daughter, Julia (Claire Danes), from an unknown sperm donor.
Woolf herself was attracted to both men and women, and although her literary alter ego, Mrs. Dalloway, is married to a member of Parliament, on the day of the party her mind darts back to a kiss exchanged with another woman years earlier. In the movie, Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson) visits from London with her family. And Woolf, in a moment of panic, plants a desperate, passionate kiss on Vanessa's mouth. In California, Laura Brown spontaneously reaches out to Kitty with a lingering kiss that is more than polite.
Some of the movie's most wrenching moments show Leonard Woolf (Stephen Dillane) frantically reaching out to his troubled wife and being rebuffed. It's not that the Woolfs don't love each other, but the agony Virginia is enduring can't be touched by love or reason. These moments bring home the film's deepest and most intimidating insight about the essential aloneness of the individual and its feminist corollary: that appearances to the contrary, women in their deepest selves do not and should not define themselves in terms of men.
Clarissa is the most grounded character, probably because she has been the truest to her instincts and has the most love to give back. When Richard, whose good days have dwindled to none, accuses Clarissa (whom he calls Mrs. Dalloway) of forcing him to stay alive, it's obviously true. Mr. Harris, more than matching his tumultuous performance in ''Pollock,'' creates a wrenching, incendiary portrait of a man ravaged with illness, who thrashes with rage and bitterness, his emotions burning out of control like a torched oil slick on a contaminated lake.
Ms. Streep's frayed, moody Clarissa is no hovering, haloed angel of mercy but an intensely self-aware, vulnerable urbanite worn down by her efforts to do the right thing. Through Ms. Streep's performance, the movie captures, like no film I can remember, the immediate, continuing interaction of experience and memory in the instinctive human drive to infuse the moment with meaning and value.
Ms. Moore's Laura, although a reader, lacks Clarissa's or Richard's literary armament and is the more vulnerable for it. A wistful, frightened creature embarrassed by her own china-doll fragility, she longs to escape a life that feels all wrong but has little notion of where to go or what to do. Ms. Moore brings to the role the same luminous demureness that colors her portrayal of an innocent, well-meaning Connecticut housewife whose world shatters in ''Far From Heaven.''
All these brooding, complicated people are prototypical Woolfian figures blessed and afflicted with the same feverish imaginations, perplexing ambiguities and brightly etched memories of their younger, more hopeful selves. Yet for all its sexual complexity, ''The Hours'' is not really about sex. The film, like the novel, is a sustained meditation on connection, human possibility, the elusive dream of happiness and the sometimes seductive call of death.
Although suicide eventually tempts three of the film's characters, ''The Hours'' is not an unduly morbid film. Clear eyed and austerely balanced would be a more accurate description, along with magnificently written and acted. Mr. Glass's surging minimalist score, with its air of cosmic abstraction, serves as ideal connective tissue for a film that breaks down temporal barriers.
Appropriately it is Woolf who has the definitive final word on the questions lurking in the backs of the minds of the film's characters with their flickering life forces.
Leonard Woolf, querying his wife about her decision to kill off a character in ''Mrs. Dalloway,'' asks her why.
She answers carefully, ''Someone has to die that the rest of us should value life more.''
''The Hours'' is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for strong language and disturbing images of disease.
Directed by Stephen Daldry; written by David Hare, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Peter Boyle; music by Philip Glass; production designer, Maria Djurkovic; produced by Scott Rudin and Robert Fox; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 110 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.
WITH: Nicole Kidman (Virginia Woolf), Julianne Moore (Laura Brown), Meryl Streep (Clarissa Vaughan), Stephen Dillane (Leonard Woolf), Miranda Richardson (Vanessa Bell), John C. Reilly (Dan Brown), Jack Rovello (Richie), Toni Collette, (Kitty), Ed Harris (Richard Brown), Allison Janney (Sally Lester), Claire Danes (Julia Vaughan) and Jeff Daniels (Louis Waters).
Three women, three times, three places. Three suicide attempts, two successful. All linked in a way by a novel. In Sussex in 1941, the novelist Virginia Woolf fills the pockets of her coat with rocks and walks into a river to drown. In Los Angeles in 1951, Laura Brown fills her purse with pills and checks into a hotel to kill herself. In New York in 2001, Clarissa Vaughan watches as the man she was once married to decides whether to let himself fall out of a window, or not.
The novel is Mrs. Dalloway, written by Woolf in 1925. It takes place in a day during which a woman has breakfast, buys flowers and prepares to throw a party. The first story in "The Hours" shows Virginia writing about the woman, the second shows Laura reading the book, the third shows Clarissa buying flowers after having said one of the famous lines of the book. All three stories in "The Hours" begin with breakfast, involve preparations for parties, end in sadness. Two of the characters in the second story appear again in the third, but the stories do not flow one from another. Instead, they all revolve around the fictional character of Mrs. Dalloway, who presents a brave face to the world but is alone, utterly alone, within herself, and locked away from the romance she desires.
"The Hours," directed by Stephen Daldry and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, doesn't try to force these three stories to parallel one another. It's more like a meditation on separate episodes linked by a certain sensibility--that of Woolf, a great novelist who wrote a little book titled A Room of One's Own that in some ways initiated modern feminism. Her observation was that throughout history women did not have a room of their own, but were on call throughout a house occupied by their husbands and families. Austen wrote her novels, Woolf observed, in a corner of a room where all the other family activities were also taking place.
In "The Hours," Woolf (Nicole Kidman) has a room of her own, and the understanding of her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane), a publisher. Laura (Julianne Moore), whom we meet in the 1950s, is a typical suburban housewife with a loving and dependable husband (John C. Reilly) she does not love, and a son who might as well be from outer space. A surprising kiss midway through her story suggests she might have been happier living as a lesbian. Clarissa (Meryl Streep), who we meet in the present, is living as a lesbian; she and her partner (Allison Janney) are raising a daughter (Claire Danes) and caring for their friend Richard (Ed Harris), now dying of AIDs. (We may know, although the movie doesn't make a point of it, that Virginia Woolf was bisexual.) If this progression of the three stories shows anything, it demonstrates that personal freedom expanded greatly during the decades involved, but human responsibilities and guilts remained the governing facts of life. It also shows that suicides come in different ways for different reasons. Woolf's suicide comes during a time of clarity and sanity in her struggle with mental illness; she leaves a note for Leonard saying that she feels the madness coming on again, and wants to spare him that, out of her love for him. Laura attempts suicide out of despair; she cannot abide her life, and sees no way out of it, and the love and gratitude of her husband is simply a goad. Richard, the Ed Harris character, is in the last painful stages of dying, and so his suicide takes on still another coloration.
And yet--well, the movie isn't about three approaches to sexuality, or three approaches to suicide. It may be about three versions of Mrs. Dalloway, who in the Woolf novel is outwardly a perfect hostess, the wife of a politician, but who contains other selves within, and earlier may have had lovers of both sexes. It would be possible to find parallels between Mrs. Dalloway and "The Hours"--the Ed Harris character might be a victim in the same sense as the shell-shocked veteran in the novel--but that kind of list-making belongs in term papers. For a movie audience, "The Hours" doesn't connect in a neat way, but introduces characters who illuminate mysteries of sex, duty and love.
I mentioned that two of the characters in the second story appear again in the third. I will not reveal how that happens, but the fact that it happens creates an emotional vortex at the end of the film, in which we see that lives without love are devastated. Virginia and Leonard Woolf loved each other, and Clarissa treasures both of her lovers. But for the two in the movie who do not or cannot love, the price is devastating.