Dir: Stephen Daldry. US. 2002. 114mins.

What must have appeared a risky proposition going into production, The Hours is one of those rare book-to-film projects which flourishes in its cinematic realisation. Making it look like as if it were effortless, writer David Hare and director Stephen Daldry have turned Michael Cunningham's uniquely moving, uniquely complicated novel into an elegant, intense and perhaps profound drama which will be a major player in the upcoming awards season and a must-see prestige picture.

What level of box office returns is it looking at' If other classy pictures like The Piano or Sense And Sensibility can gross over $100m worldwide, The Hours probably can, given careful positioning by Paramount Pictures and Miramax International. Reviews will be generally excellent and awards plentiful - the National Board Of Review has already given it its top honour - and those kudos will steer the film's grosses upwards. Women will be the principal audience for the picture, but despite the fact that it is all about three women played by a triumvirate of female superstars (Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore), it adds up to more than a women's picture. Once word is out, a broad cross-section of cinema-goers, male and female, specialised and mainstream, will experience it. Film opens in the US on Dec 27.

The key challenge for Daldry and Hare here was to meld three separate stories from three separate time periods into one continuous and compelling narrative. They were also faced with subjects such as suicide, depression, homosexuality, AIDS, abandonment of children and mental illness. What was transcendent about Cunningham's novel was that the cumulative effect of intertwining these three separate stories - and all their downbeat subjects - was life-affirming.

In Hare's screenplay, the exact structure of which remains intact on film, this intertwining is even more intricate, with switches from segment to segment taking place frequently. This has the effect not only of enabling the audience to grasp each segment early on in the film, but creating extra resonances, thematically and visually, between the three strands. By the end of the concise 114-minute running-time, Daldry has achieved what is so rare in Hollywood: a tear-jerker which turns on the audience's emotion not by any trick or manipulation but by the emotional impact of the story told. It is daring of Daldry to attempt something so sombre in a big-name film, but he is, in general, successful.

The story begins in 1941 as Virginia Woolf (Kidman, virtually unrecognisable with prosthetic nose) walks to the Thames where she is to commit suicide. Over the soundtrack, she explains to her husband Leonard why she is ending her life and why now.

The narrative then switches back to 1923 when she and Leonard (Dillane) are ensconced in a large suburban house in Richmond, far away from the lights and distractions of central London, and where Woolf one morning is beginning a new novel which will become Mrs Dalloway (although its original title was The Hours). The second story is set in 1951 in Los Angeles as Laura Brown (Moore), a pregnant housewife, and her son Richie prepare to bake a cake for her husband (Reilly) on his birthday. Brown is also reading Mrs Dalloway. The third story is in present-day Manhattan as Clarissa Vaughan (Streep), a modern day Mrs Dalloway nicknamed as such by her best friend Richard (Harris) goes about preparing a party for Richard who is dying of AIDS.

As the day progresses for each woman, certain realities will be faced and choices will be made, each echoing Woolf's own complaint that if she can not live her life to the full then she would rather choose death.

While the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is superb and the insistent score by Philip Glass appropriately unnerving, it is the conviction of the cast on which the success of the film rests. Fortunately, the three principal actresses acquit themselves admirably. Their performances are precise and each is Oscar nomination-worthy. A rich supporting cast includes Allison Janney, Toni Collette, Eileen Atkins, Jeff Daniels, Claire Danes and Miranda Richardson.

Prod cos: Scott Rudin Productions
US dist:
Paramount Pictures
Int'l sales:
Miramax Films
Exec prod:
Mark Huffam
Scott Rudin, Robert Fox
Scr: David Hare, from the novel by Michael Cunningham
Seamus McGarvey
Prod des:
Maria Djurkovic
Peter Boyle
Philip Glass
Main cast: Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels, Stephen Dillane, Allison Janney, John C Reilly, Miranda Richardson, Eileen Atkins