As the awards season gears up, the studios are buffing up their campaigns - although it's safe to say The Hours had an Oscar glint the moment it was greenlit. Weighty themes, period frills and a celebrated novelist played by a Hollywood star: as material goes, it's none-more-Oscar. It's a quality piece alright, but something to be admired rather than embraced.
Negotiating a triple-decker narrative, director Stephen Daldry weaves a day-in-the-life of three women separated by decades but linked by despair. The '90s sees Meryl Streep's mask slipping as she nurses Ed Harris; '50s suburbia has Julianne Moore flirting with suicide; while 1923 shows Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman with a prosthetic nose) starting her masterpiece Mrs Dalloway. Woolf's novel evokes a life compacted in a single day, so each character faces up to a disintegrating internal condition - what happens when the soul thaws out.
The mundane chores that interlink the stories are effective, but mood-wise this is the cinematic equivalent to sitting alone in a room with only a grandfather clock for company. Of being deadened by the oppressive gaps between the tocks. Paced like a wake, The Hours feels like a fortnight.
Admittedly, Daldry's sense of period is elegantly realised and his theatrical background ensures a quality of performance, but his visual sense is static. David Hare's script is similarly stagey. There's been much talk about Kidman's nose, yet her Woolf is all in the eyes: humoured, wounded, sly. She's good but, like Streep and Moore, it's a performance viewed through glass. Only Toni Collette truly registers. She transcends the dialogue and condenses the film's essence (of raging waters beneath still waters) with immense skill.
Look but don't be touched. Stephen Daldry's Oscar-hyped, slow-pulsed drama has a stagey sense of its own self-importance that, despite a quality cast, makes it hard to engage with.