In her revolutionary 1925 novel ”Mrs. Dalloway,” Virginia Woolf compacted a middle-aged woman’s whole life — her whole English world, really — into one fresh, calm, still June day when Clarissa Dalloway prepares to give a party. (On another day, in 1941, Woolf would put a heavy stone in her pocket, walk into the River Ouse, and drown herself.)
In his artful, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel, ”The Hours,” Michael Cunningham retained the mathematical poetry of one day = one life, then multiplied the degree of artistic difficulty by three, spanning time and geography to describe a trio of women’s lives simultaneously: As Virginia Woolf writes a first sentence (”Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”), Laura Brown, a housewife and mother in 1949 Los Angeles, is simultaneously engrossed in the finished book, losing herself in the very ordinary, very interior struggles of Woolf’s heroine to keep from drowning in her own unhappiness. And 50 years later, across the continent in Manhattan’s modern-day Greenwich Village, Clarissa Vaughan, a 52-year-old book editor, is indeed buying the flowers herself, planning a party for her friend and former lover, Richard, a poet who is dying of AIDS.
Now comes The Hours, the movie adaptation of Cunningham’s novel, and, of course, none of the above must matter. A viewer can forget about Woolf, not care a fig about Cunningham, and just bathe — soak, more like — in the voluptuous sadnesses of Mss. Woolf, Brown, and Vaughan, delineated with such refinement by Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep. In fact, a viewer is better off doing so, because somewhere between Woolf, Cunningham, and this handsome, unsubtle, hell-bent-for-Oscar production, a written work meant to feel liquid has become a cinematic solid. And while we can admire their attractive exteriors, we don’t know anything about the interior lives of the three women so vibrantly miserable in their unhappiness.
As solids go, this one glides on prestige-production casters: Stephen Daldry (”Billy Elliot”) directed, playwright David Hare (”Plenty”) etched the screenplay, eminent composer Philip Glass (”Koyaanisqatsi”) hand-knitted the long, loopy scarf of a score choking the movie’s themes of womanly waves, water, repetition, monotony, and, for all I know, biorhythms. Every supporting role is not just introduced, but solved; every detail of physical decay on Ed Harris’ body, as the dying, mentally ravaged Richard, looks thought through. (Is it wrong to admire the worn flannel pajama top of a raving man, with its pattern of children’s retro space motifs?) Allison Janney stalks through as Clarissa’s longtime lesbian lover; Claire Danes wafts in as Clarissa’s hip college-age daughter; Toni Collette, in a brief, striking turn, quavers as Laura Brown’s unhappy neighbor. Little Jack Rovello is eerily good as Laura’s unhappy young son.
Oh, and that long, prosthetic nose of Kidman’s? It’s excellent, very long indeed, and the inventive actress makes serious use of the schnozz and a pair of beetled eyebrows as facial cliffs from which to peer over and under Woolf’s incipient madness. (She’s also good at holding pens and cigarettes with tremulous Woolfish elegance.) The author, after all, was mentally ill, and heard voices in her head. But why, then, can’t we hear those voices too?
I hear no inner music at all in these ”Hours”; unlike, say, director Terence Davies, whose lilting personal orchestration distinguishes ”The House of Mirth,” director Daldry spells out only a main tune. And instead of depth, I see simplified geometry and linear equations: Kidman’s childless Virginia entertains her sister (Miranda Richardson) and her sister’s children, while frozen housewife Laura (far more unchippable than the unhappy housewife Moore plays in ”Far From Heaven”) and her son bake a birthday cake for her husband (John C. Reilly), while Streep’s Clarissa cooks and caters for hordes in an airy House & Gardens kitchen. Each exchanges a deep kiss with another woman before the day is done. Each longs for something she doesn’t possess — sanity, freedom, passion — but does so with such actorly tremors (and, in Streep’s case during a grand weep in the kitchen, with such a flutter of braceletted hands) that we’re invited to lose ourselves in the gestures rather than question the movie’s larger intentions.
And still I don’t know what this filmed ”Hours” means to say — about sexuality or children or sadness or the womanly urge to gather people together, or about AIDS, either. More dismaying still, I begin to think that it doesn’t have much to say at all. By writing about what she called the ”caves behind my characters” in ”Mrs. Dalloway,” Woolf cracked the narrative form open with a fierce, feminine intensity. By improvising on her theme in triplicate in his novel, Cunningham paid homage to his elder and expressed mid- and end-of-century anxieties with striking literary flair. By not staking a position of their own, the producers of ”The Hours” pay homage to tastefulness — the very lure that trapped Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa in the first place.