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.
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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.