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.