The Hours

Late in his new film Talk To Her, Pedro Almodóvar includes a shot of a character with a copy of Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours on his night table. It's a tip of the hat to a favorite book and, by Almodóvar's own admission, a public acknowledgment that he would have liked a crack at filming it. That makes it hard to watch Billy Elliot director Stephen Daldry's adaptation without thinking of the one Almodóvar might have made–which surely would have been warmer, less self-consciously tony, and less relentlessly arid than the one that did get made. The cast could have stayed, in part because it's hard to think of a film with a cast this impressive, at least since Magnolia. Still formidable even when her performance relies on a facial expression most often seen on wet cats, Nicole Kidman plays Virginia Woolf in one of the film's intertwined segments. Forcibly recuperating after a depressive episode, she lives in Richmond but longs to return to the rush of nearby London. While there, she begins writing the book that will become Mrs. Dalloway: the story of a celebration, the woman behind it, the life she lived, and the life she imagines she could have lived. Dalloway echoes through the years in the film's other episodes. Unsuitable housewife Julianne Moore reads it as she attempts to bake a cake for husband John C. Reilly's birthday in the Los Angeles suburbs of the 1950s. Meryl Streep relives it in modern-day New York as she prepares a party honoring lifelong friend and long-ago lover Ed Harris, whose attendance is continually put in doubt by the effects of AIDS and dementia. Translating Cunningham's parallel lives gracefully would be a challenge for any director, but Daldry approaches it with little restraint. Streep's actions echo Moore's echoing Kidman's echoing Streep's, but it's obvious when it should be mysterious, like a poem that starts with "moon," then proceeds logically through "June" and "tune." (It doesn't help that Philip Glass' score continually suggests more sophisticated patterns of repetition.) The Hours has its virtues as an actors' showcase, and it might have had more if it ever allowed viewers to forget those actors, instead of throwing them monologues that are ready to be mined by future audition handbooks. In Dalloway, Woolf used the details of a room, the revelations of a moment, and flashes of the past to create a whole life out of details, with a command of the textures of everyday existence that suggested effortlessness. However much it apes its source material, The Hours always seems to strain for effect, and to live for the applause that follows.

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