It all begins with the word. "I believe I may have a first sentence," murmurs Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman -- yes, really) to her husband, Leonard (Stephen Dillane), commencing labor on her fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The year is 1921, but skillfully intercut segments illustrate that the book's heady emotional content will ripple dramatically -- and traumatically -- through the lives of other depressed women in succeeding decades. At least in theory. Welcome to The Hours, a portrait of alienation and misery from director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot), adapted by David Hare (Strapless) from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham. It's a noble work, an elegant work, a compassionate work -- and a somewhat tedious and glaringly self-important work. In other words, it's a high-wattage award-magnet, so stand clear unless you want to get bashed by gilded statuettes.
The beauty of Cunningham's Hours is that it deals with the synchronicity of seemingly unrelated souls, a theme explored mostly inwardly in his prose, but transformed into action here. (Hare and Daldry agreed up front to avoid relying on voice-over, a very wise choice.) At first, things are a bit puzzling. Philip Glass's trademark doodle-doodle-doo music starts irritating the nerves -- it runs almost nonstop throughout, sometimes wrecking otherwise satisfying scenes -- and we meet our three Oscar contenders. Woolf is stuck in the London suburb of Richmond. Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is an ennui-plagued 1950s housewife -- sound familiar? -- stuck in Los Angeles (actually shot in Florida, for some reason). And Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) is a flustered Manhattanite -- sound familiar again? -- who's preparing a party for her ex-lover, Richard (Ed Harris), a passionate poet who's swiftly succumbing to AIDS.
Unbeknownst to one another in their respective decades, the three women are all preparing for parties. In Richmond -- flash forward to 1923 -- Woolf frets over candied ginger for the charming children (George Loftus, Charley Ramm, Sophie Wyburd) of her sister, Vanessa Bell (an atypically straightforward Miranda Richardson), kvetching at the help to go fetch her some from London. Meanwhile -- literally, as the scenes flow into one another -- a fake-smiling Laura cajoles her distraught son Richie (Jack Rovello) to help her make a birthday cake for her WWII-veteran husband, Dan (John C. Reilly, king of simpleminded onscreen husbands). And in New York, Clarissa desperately flits about to prepare "the crab thing" and other delights for Richard, while admitting to her live-in lover, Sally (Allison Janney), how sorely she lacks acknowledgment.
Once you've seen The Hours, it's pretty easy to look back on it and dismiss its minimalism as a lack of substance. While it's on the screen, though -- especially if you haven't read the book -- the film's subtleties foster a distinct sense of mystique. Far from being just a glorified soap opera, the project's multiple story lines weave sinuously through the hearts and minds of these women until it becomes crucial to understand how they're connected, what it all means. It's a credit to Daldry -- already a master of sad-lad flicks -- that he sustains the flow of ambiguity without dumping us into confusion.
The problem, however, is that we never really get a feel for why these women are so sad. One could generalize about the unkind state of the world or whatever, but come on: Why is Woolf so crippled by misery? Why can't Laura just take an art class or get it on with her zesty neighbor, Kitty (a superb Toni Collette, the only actress given a motivation for unhappiness)? Why does Clarissa keep berating herself? Everybody seems to tap-dance around these questions.
The answer could be that The Hours, while ostensibly a women's movie, is not. It is, given a little reflection, much more a men's movie -- which could explain why the female characters are so moody, but lack depth. The real focus here is Richard -- his dreary life, his nearly self-immolating inner passion. Ed Harris brings much to the role, including the echoes of his sustained and vital career, and seeing him destitute, swooning over life's picky details as if everything were poetry, is truly moving.
But let's be frank. People aren't going to discuss Ed very much. They're going to debate which actress most deserves the trophy, and above all they're going to talk about the absolutely ridiculous fake nose Kidman wears throughout the movie, seamlessly blended to her skin texture, but several shades too pale and altogether unnecessary -- as if she's got to compensate for her usual glam or something. Her eyes, her accent, her moodiness are all superb -- but that nose blows. It even makes a mockery of Woolf's suicide by drowning, as anyone with that much prosthetic goop on her face is definitely going to float -- and survive.