Behind The Scenes: Mrs. Dalloway's Close-Up

Many people, including Michael Cunningham, who wrote the "The Hours," didn't think the novel could be turned into a movie. It's the hardest kind of tale to transcribe to the screen--internal, literary, more reliant on sensibility than plot. Fortunately, this view wasn't shared by Scott Rudin, who optioned the book, or by screenwriter David Hare. "I never thought it was difficult to adapt," Hare says. For him, the biggest challenge was to convey what the three heroines were thinking without resorting to voice-over. "That would have made it feel 'literary'." Cunningham was only afraid the filmmakers would be "too reverential" to his Pulitzer Prize winner. "Michael was incredible," Hare says. "He told me, 'I inherited it from Virginia Woolf, and now you must go off and alter it as freely as I adapted "Mrs. Dalloway" '." Though Hare's screenplay went through myriad drafts--changing further when director Stephen Daldry, fresh off "Billy Elliot," came aboard--in the end "the structure is almost exactly what it was in the first draft." Daldry and Hare's seductive, brilliant movie takes place during a day in the lives of three women in three different eras: the writer Virginia Woolf in 1923; the unhappy California housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), who is reading "Mrs. Dalloway" in 1951, and a contemporary New York book editor named Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep)--nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway--who is preparing to throw a party for her ex-lover, a poet dying of AIDS. To Daldry, "these women all have the feeling they've been miscast in life."

Woolf is the presiding spirit. (Her suicide by drowning in 1941 frames the movie.) Her devoted husband, Leonard (a superb Stephen Dillane), concerned about her mental instability, has confined her to the London suburb of Richmond, where she is struggling to write "Mrs. Dalloway," a novel that takes place in 24 hours. But she bucks the constraints of convalescence--death in life for her--longing for the vitality and danger of the city.

Clara Brown is drowning in her marriage to a stolid husband (John C. Reilly), feeling hopelessly inadequate as a mother and a housewife. Her only solace is in the pages of Woolf's book, which distracts her from her near-suicidal despair.

Clarissa has a more settled domestic life, with a grown daughter (Claire Danes) and a lover (Allison Janney) she's lived with for 10 years. But she's trying to fend off the feeling that her life is trivial, trying to hang on to the memory of her affair with Richard (an emaciated Ed Harris), a New York poet who left her years ago for a man. Few actresses can express their inner lives without a line of dialogue as eloquently as Streep: her warm, flustered performance allows us to become mind readers. Harris is more problematic. Though he admirably plays against stereotype, there's a sense of strain; he doesn't seem totally at home with Richard's florid proclamations.

The first thing everybody will say about Kidman is that she's unrecognizable. True, but the wonder of her performance is how she instantly, through her hunched shoulders, her hooded, skeptical eyes and her deepened voice, reveals Woolf to us--challenging, troubled, brilliant, witty, both contentious and defensive. Moore, as the most tortured of these women, is heartbreakingly good as this lost soul. But there's a glint of steel under her fragility--a cruelty, we discover, that she'll need in order to survive.

Daldry and Hare may not be slavishly faithful to Cunningham's novel, but they have managed to capture its essence, to clarify its themes. The three contrapuntal tales, instead of interrupting each other, echo back and forth, illuminating each other, tributaries that ultimately feed into the same strong, turbulent river. It's a meticulous, gorgeous-looking movie, but the appreciation of detail, the sense of an underlying beauty just outside the characters' reach, is not mere decoration; it goes to the heart of what "The Hours" is about. For all the despair its three gallant, damaged, sexually ambivalent women are trying to keep at bay, the movie is ultimately a hard-won celebration of life as it is meant to be lived, hour by hour, moment by moment. It may be set in 1923 or 1951 or 2001, but it is always vividly, urgently Now.