by Ed Symkus

Thank goodness for title cards, those printed tags that let viewers know where a movie is taking them in time and place. In the case of The Hours -- a swirling, year-hopping study of three very different women -- the cards tell us that when disturbed writer Virginia Woolf commits suicide at the very beginning, it's in Sussex, England, in 1941, whereas when she's seen earlier in life (but later in the movie), it's in Richmond, England, in 1923. When we first meet disturbed housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), we're in 1951 Los Angeles. And when (possibly) disturbed editor Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is introduced, she's in New York City in 2001. Woolf's story, of course, is real; the other two are fictional.

Different temporal settings generate different kinds of women. But the film's complex, multi-layered story, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Michael Cunningham, ties its characters and eras together in a fascinating way. Though it's not really necessary to read Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway before seeing the film, Cunningham's novel carefully reimagines it. But Woolf's novel is the glue holding everything together.

During the Woolf segments, the depressed, suicidal author is struggling to write Mrs. Dalloway, a novel about a middle-aged woman who's great at organizing and planning parties but full of regret over the mistakes she has made. The terribly unhappy and depressed Laura Brown loves her young son, yet has no feelings for her husband; she finds some solace in reading Woolf's tale about Clarissa Dalloway.

That character's namesake in the present, Clarissa Vaughan, is simply too busy planning a big party for one of her writer-friends to notice how unhappy she is. The friend insists on pegging her with a nickname: Mrs. Dalloway.

To their credit, director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) and screenwriter David Hare (The Corrections, upcoming) have created what many thought to be impossible -- a smooth, understandable film version of a book that takes place mostly inside its characters' heads. Rather than coming across as separate pieces, the triad of stories flow gently into one another. Yet while most of this is very low-key, and while a lot of it is unsettling, there are also flashes of humor: The camera catches each of the women waking up to a different style of alarm clock. Still, humor is rare here: The film starts with a death, after all, and dying is a prominent topic throughout. Clarissa's big party is intended to honor one of her star writers, Richard (Ed Harris, in a strong and sad performance), who is angrily dying from AIDS. And there is all manner of frustration spinning in the heads of the three main characters.

None of that should deter anyone from watching The Hours. The movie's complicated structure, and the fact that it blends into resolution, is amazing enough. But then we get to savor the actors' work.

Streep, full of life at the beginning, exhausted by the end, gives the widest-ranging, most powerful performance, as her character longs for the happier days. (If memory serves, this is her first lesbian role since she left Woody Allen for another woman in Manhattan. The scenes with her partner, The West Wing's Allison Janney, are relaxed and very sweet.) Kidman, with a prosthetic nose that renders her unrecognizable and a withering scowl, is dowdy and sullen throughout. She comes slightly alive only when, cigarette in mouth, pen and paper in hand, she's writing -- or when she's talking to herself about how her novel might develop. In the film's second half, when her character is given more dialogue, Kidman is excellent. For her part, Moore walks around with a glazed look in her eyes: a sad, lost soul whose circumstances worsen each time her bright-eyed but confused little boy tries to make sense of Mommy's sadness. Moore too is made to look oh-so-plain, especially when contrasted to her bubbly, overly made-up friend Kitty (another chameleon role by Toni Collette).

The film plays out slowly and luxuriously. The musical score, by minimalist Phillip Glass, uses its repetitiveness to keep each scene in one mood and to knit together three distinct eras.

After seeing The Hours, some people are going to describe it as a film about women falling apart; others will remember it as a film about women kissing women (as all three main characters eventually do). Most viewers will call it a film about how hard it is to be a woman. But even that isn't fully accurate. Deep down, The Hours is concerned with how hard it is to be a human being.

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