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Dances With Woolf

If Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel The Hourspulled off the quietest of daredevil stunts, maintaining a precarious composure as it retraced Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dallowayin time-hopping triplicate, Stephen Daldry's film version erects a shrine to the art of falling apart. Dive-bombing toward Oscar night, it's an extravagant, sobbing, diva-powered crack-up of a movie, given to epic fits of drama-queen theatricality.

The prologue envisions the by now mythical March 1941 tableau mort: Woolf (a transformed Nicole Kidman), stooped and shuffling but unambiguous in purpose, makes her way to the River Ouse, slips a stone into her pocket, and wades in. Cunningham's opening passage isn't immune from a certain dubious romanticism, but it dares to apply the blazing sentience of Woolf's prose to the final moments of her life; the movie settles for brisk quasi-suspense that, as Virginia succumbs to the current and is swept through tangles of weeds, modulates into grim lyricism.

The specter of suicide thus established, The Hours goes on to follow three women in different eras over the course of a single day, as they begin to write, begin to read, and subliminally re-enact Mrs. Dalloway. In 1923, Kidman's Woolf, spirited away from Bloomsbury ferment, languishes in torpid Richmond under the vigilant eye of husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane), agonizing over a first sentence and anticipating a teatime call from sister Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson). Nearly three decades later, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a pregnant housewife in an arid L.A. burb, numbly conspires with her little boy to bake a birthday cake for Daddy (John C. Reilly), finding brief solace in her Woolf hardcover and a visit from vamp next door Kitty (Toni Collette). Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), a present-day book editor living with partner Sally (Allison Janney) in fatigued West Village domesticity, prepares for a fete to honor close friend and onetime abortive paramour Richard (Ed Harris), a gay poet suffering from AIDS-related dementia.

She wins by a nose: Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours.
photo: Paramount
She wins by a nose: Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

Details

The Hours
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Written by David Hare, from the novel by Michael Cunningham
Paramount
Opens December 27

Chicago
Directed by Rob Marshall
Written by Bill Condon
Miramax
Opens December 27

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And so it proceeds, an accelerating whirl of madness and genius, fluidly sexual kisses and the alternate paths they symbolize, women on the verge and the gay men who love them. Cunningham's novel, named for Mrs. Dalloway's working title, not only resurrects Woolf as a character but installs her as ventriloquizing high priestess. Through feats of transposition, reversal, and analogy, The Hours provides for the author and her 1925 ur-text an afterlife much like the one its protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway, pictures for herself: surviving in "the ebb and flow of things," "being laid out like a mist." Daldry's movie emphasizes The Hours' rigid schema, enforcing its associations with the relative violence of intercuts. Events in 1923, 1951, and 2001 mirror one another, and where the book gathers force from its various echoes and hauntings, repetitions are here pitched between the comic and the cosmic—does it mean something that eggs are portentously cracked in all three periods?

Needless to say, the painstaking interior prose that Woolf revolutionized and thatCunningham venerates—the roil of "an ordinary mind on an ordinary day," as she put it—doesn't translate easily to movies (witnessMarleen Gorris's flashback-happy 1997 Mrs. Dalloway, whose screenwriter, Eileen Atkins, herself once an onstage Woolf, appears briefly in the New York section of The Hours). The form isn't necessarily inimical—Claire Denis's films are decidedly Woolfian in the way they privilege sensory experience—but the Hollywood vernacular is an immediate handicap. David Hare's script prunes digressions, interjects monologues, and resists voice-over—only for the stampeding arpeggios of Philip Glass's score to rush into the breach. Theater pro Daldry (Billy Elliot) has a taste for bludgeoning obviousness, but at least he cultivates a hothouse atmosphere conducive to some highly flammable thespianism.

Streep and Moore deliver footnote encores to recent triumphs: As in Adaptation, the ever game Streep offers herself up as a figure of some absurdity and infinite sadness (no other actor has a more ruefully expressive half-smile); Moore splits the difference between the two indelible suburban homemakers she played for Todd Haynes in Far From Heaven and Safe. But it's an astonishing Kidman who contributes the film's—and maybe the year's—most inspired turn. Her delivery crispened and her voice lowered by an octave, outfitted in dingy housecoats and a scene-stealing prosthetic schnoz, she skulks through the movie with head bowed, eyes flitting, and nerve endings exposed.

There's a good measure of humor in Kidman's Woolf—a knowingly morbid proto-goth who tends to dead birds and scares the visiting children (including her future biographer Quentin Bell)—but most of all, she conveys the sense of a crystalline intellect raging against and fearfully aware of an encroaching plague (Leonard Woolf in his memoirs noted thatVirginia remained "even when most insane,terribly sane in three-quarters of her mind"). It's a fiercely committed characterization that at its richest suggests the author's own"tunnelling process" that she discovered while writing Mrs. Dalloway—"how I dig outbeautiful caves behind my characters."

The 1923 segments—the movie's strongest—are enlivened by Richardson's flighty Vanessa (who shares a sloppy snog with her sister) and Dillane's sympathetic, fretful Leonard. In New York, Harris, gaunt and unchecked, overacts more than Glass's score, but Jeff Daniels puts in a delectable appearance as not-so-straight man to a discombobulating Streep. Laura's story, a self-contained heartbreaker in the book, brings out the most manipulative in Daldry and Hare, who, at a loss to convey the character's restive intelligence, stress only her tremulous despair. A single unassuming line in the novel—"She has left her son with Mrs. Latch down the street"—is extrapolated into a teary, Spielbergian aria of abandonment. The final puzzle-piece revelation that Cunningham ever so gingerly snaps into place is handled with power tools.

Still, as much as Daldry's The Hours coarsens the book's psychology, reconfiguring its Doppler ripples as cause-effect vectors, it drinks deeply from the original's well of sorrow and locates a similar concluding grace note. There are not only flowers to get and parties to host but deaths to forestall. Weighed down with the fullness and risk of a single day times three, the film leaves its heroines with their lives to live, for now.


The long-germinating movie of the musical Chicago isn't much of a movie after all,machine-gun edits notwithstanding. This Jazz Age tale of tabloid fame and death-row femmes fatales—a Kander-Ebb-Fosse production in 1975 before its current hit revival—has been filmed by musical theater veteran Rob Marshall with extreme reverence for its vaudeville roots. The numbers all still play out on a stage, interspersed in a narrative that remains the same stale blast of self-congratulating showbiz cynicism: After shooting her no-good lover, ambitious chorine Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) retains trickster lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) and supplants showgirl and fellow inmate Velma Kelly (adept hoofer Catherine Zeta-Jones) as gutter-press fodder. Hold the front page: Fame is ephemeral and the media is venal.

Zellweger has gone about the business of making her Roxie huggable—which is asexhausting for us as it is for her. The mostballyhooed revamp, Marshall's plausibility-enhancing stratagem (an odd concern for a musical), explains away the song-and-dance routines as Roxie's fantasies. It's hardly a novel trick, borrowed from Cabaret (which situated the numbers exclusively in the Kit Kat Klub) and all-in-the-mind meta-musicals like Pennies From Heaven and Dancer in the Dark. (Sticklers for psychological realism should note that last year's Buffy episode "Once More, With Feeling" holds the gold standard—the break-into-song compulsion is chalked up todemonic possession.) You'd think that using Roxie's reveries as a framing device wouldfacilitate more elastic flights of fancy; instead, they're all confined to a black-box stage.Didn't she see Moulin Rouge? It's hard not to wish that Chicago had taken place inside a more imaginative head.

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