Hours, The: Stephen Daldry’s Version of Michael Cunningham’s Prize-Winning Novel

The literary work at the center of Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours” is Virginia Woolf’s first great novel, “Mrs. Dalloway” (published in 1925), which she began writing just as she was sinking into madness.

The three stories and four time frames (which also include a brief interlude of Woolf’s suicide in 1943) intertwine and come together in a surprising, transcendental moment of shared recognition that life, with all its troubles and anxieties, is worth living to the fullest, day by day, hour by hour (hence the title).

From the start, the biggest challenge was casting the lead roles with the best actresses available. Once director Daldry (“Billy Elliott”) was assigned the project, he knew exactly which actress he wanted for each part. Daldry then decided to work separately with each performer. As Meryl Streep recalled: “We never worked together, we were not even allowed to meet.” Indeed, Daldry first shot the contemporary scenes with Streep, then the Moore story, and finally the Kidman’s segment.

Both Streep and Moore have done good, serious work before. The most celebrated actress of her generation, Streep claims to her credit twelve Oscar nominations and two awards (a supporting Oscar for Kramer Vs. Kramer and a lead for Sophie’s Choice). An Oscar nomination for The Hours (and/or for Adaptation, Streep other picture this season) will make her “the queen of Oscar,” the most nominated actress in the Academy’s history.

The biggest leap (“stretching,” as actors describe it) in “The Hours” is done by Kidman, the youngest of the trio. With two superlative performances last year (the thriller The Others and the Oscar-nominated musical, Moulin Rouge) is now Hollywood’s hottest actress. Kidman threw herself wholeheartedly into playing the troubled, suicidal Woolf. Reportedly Miramax’s honcho Harvey Weinstein was worried about Kidman’s fake nose, but both producer Scott Rudin and helmer Daldry insisted on deglamorizing Kidman’s naturally stunning looks and making her look more credible as the British writer.

While aware that the movie would have been criticized if “Woolf looked too much like me,” the Australian-born actress was alarmed that her physical appearance (and accent) might distract the viewers’ attention from the essence of her work. “I was fearful,” says Kidman, “that the minute I walk on people would start whispering and laughing, ‘Oh, look. She’s walking around with a fake nose!'” Fortunately that didn’t happen. For one thing, many viewers barely recognized her. For another, for her performance, Kidman received some of the best reviews of her career todate, crowned by a Golden Globe as the year’s best dramatic actress.

Kidman had to face other challenges. She had to learn how to write right-handed and to contemplate of how to portray realistically Woolf’s suicide. This was particularly difficult as the suicide–with Woolf walking into a river to drown–was the first scene to be shot. To get it right, Kidman rehearsed the act so many times–putting stones in her pocket before walking into the river–which the producers began worrying about her health.

Along with Woolf’s suicide, the movie depicts another character, Richard (Clarissa’s gay ex-lover), descending into madness, and eventually taking his own life. Yet both director and cast see their movie as a positive, even heartening statement about life. They therefore hope that the viewers too will absorb the very choices that the characters make of how to conduct their everyday lives.

Since the major personas are all women, another question arises: Is The Hours sending a feminist message about women’s position in society For Daldry, the essence of The Hours is its “profound respect for women and the challenges they face throughout the turbulent, utterly unpredictable developments of the twentieth century.” Daldry elaborates: “One of the things that originally drew me to the script, it’s that our women are given a day to define themselves, and maybe that day is every day for them.”

For Daldry, ultimately, the film is truly heroic in “the journey, the struggle, the stoicism and emotional difficulties they’re facing. The battles and heroics are as much in the backyard and in the bedroom, as much when you’re baking a cake in the kitchen as when men are climbing mountains and winning wars.” Daldry holds that “often the heroics in women’s lives are underestimated, or put into the background by the heroics in the lives of men. But obviously, women’s struggles are enormous, just as important as the men’s, if not more so.”