This novel by Michael Cunningham intricately weaves the lives of three women from different eras into a powerful story of process; of thought, in life. The novel won the Pulitzer prize in 1999 and received critical acclaim for the biographical study of author Virginia Woolf, who is one of the three women portrayed in this book.

The first woman copes with the stress of modern New York living. She is throwing a party for an ailing friend and is desperately resolved to help him and have the celebration run perfectly. The second woman is Virginia Woolf, before her suicide in the early 20's. The third woman is a baby boomer housewife in the 50's who yearns for something more.

With powerful prose and conviction, Cunningham reveals the human condition by examining the thoughts and actions of these three women. Props to Cunningham for being able to absorb through the stereotypical gender blockades, these woman are wonderful characters. The tone is smooth and I am impressed with the way he gives inanimate objects soul. He writes of a dilapidated chair being, surprised it is a chair at all, and of two aloe plants being astonished to be there. These images capture the essence of moment while it unravels.

Each chapter is committed to a specific character. Mrs. Brown, the housewife, is pregnant and raising a young son. She is dedicated to her role as a wife and mother but desperately yearns for escape, a life without the typical. Woolfs character is based on an actual collection of letters and diary of the author which explore the agonizing wonder of writing. Mrs. Dalloway, the third woman, is a symbol of alternative lifestyle and the roles of being a stoic of modern times. The chapters alternate, then intertwine at the party Mrs. Dalloway is throwing.

Suicide is indeed an underlying theme, hand in hand with perseverance. Cunningham produces a leap frog effect of identity, the reader is forced to confront and accept the turmoil any moment may bring. Reading this is like a cloud graying out a sunbeam, only to have it, and all the floating dust particles revealed again.

Other works by Michael Cunningham:

  • Home at the End of the World, 1990
  • Flesh and Blood, 1995
  • A short story excerpt from Home at the End of the World titled "White Angel" was published in the New Yorker and voted the Best American Short Story in 1989.

Also a movie based on the book, featuring astonishing performances by three of the greatest female actors of our time.

The best of them may be Nicole Kidman, who is virtually unrecognizable here as Virginia Woolf: decidedly unglamorous with a nose prosthesis, chapped hands, frumpy dresses. The story begins as she pens her suicide note to her husband, Leonard: she explains that she's been hearing voices again, fears that this time she will not recover, and thanks him for their years of happiness. Then she walks down to the river, puts rocks in her pockets, and drowns herself.

This grim scene sets the tone for the film, and each of the three main characters has an air of quiet desparation that dogs them as they try to get through their hours. The plot device that unites them is Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway: the author is shown in 1923 confined to her house by doctors in an attempt to deal with her depression and nervous fits, but momentarily galvanized by the realization that she has in her mind the first sentence of the novel. In 1951 the book is being read by desperately unhappy pregnant housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) as she plans a small party for her husband's birthday (the husband played by John C. Reilly), watched by her uncanny young son who clings to her as he senses how close to the edge she is. Meanwhile, in 2001, New York book editor Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep), dubbed Clarissa Dalloway by her friend Richard (Ed Harris), is planning a party to celebrate a prize he is receiving for his poetry. This Clarissa, like the one in Mrs. Dalloway, is flustered as she tries to arrange the perfect event; at the same time she is sadly remembering how happy she was when she and Richard were young lovers, before they both realized that their attractions lay with the same sex; Richard is now bitter and lonely as he enters the last days of his life, dying of AIDS.

Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) is to be commended for making this sensitive triptych of a movie which reflects a bleak theme Woolf often wrote of: the hopelessness and triviality of modern women's lives. Philip Glass's soundtrack helps to bring coherence to the movie, as do the narrative threads of identity, creativity, tenderness, and madness. For these characters, suicide seems, at times, the most attractive option, and in the end some of them choose life, some death. An intelligent, moving, poignant film, highly recommended.

My only quibble with the movie is that it shows Woolf's niece and nephews laughing at her, whereas in fact she was a lively conversationalist and considered great fun; one of those nephews, Quentin Bell, went on to write a celebrated biography of his favourite aunt. The mocking laughs weren't in the book or in Woolf's real life, so I was sad to see them here in this movie, probably the closest most people will come to knowing about Virginia Woolf.

When I originally wrote this I wondered who would get the Oscar nomination: Kidman, Streep, Moore, or all three? The latter was the case, and Kidman won best actress "by a nose", as presenter Denzel Washington quipped.

"If we didn't live venturously, plucking the wild goat by the beard, and trembling over precipices, we should never be depressed, I've no doubt; but already should be faded, fatalistic and aged."
--Virginia Woolf

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Ed Harris, Allison Janney, John C. Reilly, Eileen Atkins, Stephen Dillane

I found this to be a movie about discovering the greatness of life through the brutality of death....spoilers probably await you, also.

If one knows anything about Virginia Woolf prior to seeing this movie, you're pretty much aware that the cinematic experience won’t be a non-stop barrel of laughs. The renowned, mentally disturbed writer had an uncanny knack for examining the beauty and most of all the infinite tragedy of human life – specifically for lives of women. It is Woolf’s own life story along with her written masterpieces that inspire this movie, The Hours, to remind viewers how horrid and beautiful life is all at once. Director Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot) unquestionably achieves this difficult quest.

Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Michael Cunningham, The Hours is a story that looks to weave the lives of three women in different eras together, pointing out their stark similarities as each face the daunting task of trying to find what is right for them in this world. Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) somberly walks the grounds of a suffocating home, attempting to write her “Mrs. Dalloway” while being imprisoned by doctors. Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a dutiful 50’s housewife with a young son and another baby on the way, struggles to keep her sanity while being confined in a setting she wants nothing of anymore. Finally, the modern day Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) is suddenly is faced with the terrifying notion that she is not really living her own life, and hadn’t been for years. The focus is on one life-changing day, from beginning to end, in each woman’s life.

Kidman manages to do a spectacular job as the mordaciously gifted Woolf. With someone else's un-pert nose, dour mannerisms and a facial expression that could both wither and intrigue at the same time, the actress manages to eliminate visions of all of her former roles thick with glamour and liveliness- from “To Die For” to “Moulin Rouge.” The tragedy of the writer’s life is made real on the screen, for a viewer could see her mental strain in her attempts to socialize with the living people outside of her books, and understand her preoccupation with the inevitability of death for all living creatures. Woolf herself is the fulcrum of the film; her book “Mrs. Dalloway” is what Laura Brown is reading in the 50s, and Mrs. Dalloway is the nickname of Clarissa is modern day. The other two women are immensily impacted by the dead author, and Kidman gives Woolf a subtle strength that is undying even as she marches to her watery suicide.

Moore gives a fine performance as the housewife who has been a prisoner of society’s commands. It takes a bit of time to really understand how her character suffers, but Moore’s expressions of complete helplessness while trying to bake a cake are moving. As the character glances constantly at her little boy’s face for reactions, one can detect the underlying anger and confusion within her - the emotions begging to be let free as she labors to continue adorned in prim, fire opal necklaces and tightly cinched dresses. The tale of Mrs. Dalloway is the catalyst for her, and she carries the book along on an outing one day with a desire to release herself from her role as a cloned Donna Reed.

The character of Clarissa seems meant for Streep. The actress accesses her range of emotion to make the woman one of depth. Clarissa, who has spent a number of years nursing a close friend dying of AIDS, starts off her day making arrangements for a party (just like the fabled Mrs. Dalloway), but is forced to greatly examine herself following a traumatic event. One can more easily identify with Clarissa when Streep plays the woman as sweet and giving but denying herself, and her breakdown in a kitchen looks as real as it could possibly be.

The camera action practiced in the film does not draw attention to itself; the lense merely rests on the most important, sensitive moments in each scene. Every bit of intensity proved potent enough in the slow but steady plot rather than in drastic camera work.

To analyze the multitude of layers in a woman’s life during any moment in history, women who ferociously crave more meaning in their lives while so often being stifled by the world, was what Woolf was best at. She could show the passion of the woman’s soul in all its forms, then directly point out how death has a key part in the soul's journey. With the aid of her powerful tales this film manages to capture this delicate vision as well. What is most surprising, perhaps, is that despite all of the pain and sadness, one is not filled with despair at the end of the film, but rather an appreciation for life and all its flaws.

The overpowering hues of taupe and brown are primary in practically every scene, re-enforcing the blandness of unlived lives. A grave created for a dead female bird by Woolf and a little girl is ostensibly dismal, though the death does not truly feel like the end, but rather the beginning of the creature’s next step in nature’s magnificant cycle. This film skillfully indicates this slightly more positive view on death by centering on Woolf’s face, which appears fascinated and admiring instead of tearful. The director crafts other morbid scenes in the movie in a similar fashion, pointing out that traumacan be more than debilitating. It can motivate people to move on.

That is one of several reasons this movie is one of the best out in the past year.

Grade: A- Rated: PG-13 for language and adult themes

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