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film: Their Finest 'Hours'

Streep, Moore and Kidman are a distaff dream-team in this elegant elegy of melancholia.

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Traversing three different periods, Daldry interweaves the threads of three women's lives, showing us what makes these women distinct individuals. But at the same time, Daldry makes us understand the unsung, yet universal, themes resonating through every female's life.

In 2001 New York, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is in the midst of preparing to throw a party in honor of her friend Richard (Ed Harris). A half century and a whole continent away, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) steels herself for another perfect day with her family in a brand-spanking-new '50s-era California suburb. Across the Atlantic and three more decades earlier, Virginia Woolf herself (Nicole Kidman) crafts the opening sentences of what will become her novel "Mrs. Dalloway."

We watch in silence as Clarissa, Laura and Virginia move through the business of their days, their stories crisscrossing and overlapping as if braided by a mother's loving hands. These women's days begin as almost painfully mundane, but by the end, each will be changed forever, never to return to what she was before.

Because Cunningham's language — as well as Woolf's — plays out as an internal dialogue, there's very little action in the movie. Everything happens within the minds of the characters, and it is a testament to the creative talents of playwright David Hare ("Plenty") that he could actually translate this daunting, introspective work for the screen. And he's accomplished it miraculously, with a minimum of voice-over.

For fans of Cunningham's novel, this means more than a few jarring alterations and omissions. In particular, it's somewhat mystifying when Laura's vague thoughts of suicide turn into full-blown plans and the actual means to do so. But that's a minor quibble, considering that Hare and Daldry manage to keep intact the lyrical fluidity of the book.

Describing them as luminous doesn't come close to doing these three actresses justice. Exquisitely pale to a woman, Streep, Moore and Kidman are a distaff dream team, offering viewers the heady, rare treat of seeing not one but three actresses at the top of their game.

At first, Streep appears to be trying too hard, making her Clarissa seem overly theatrical and ditsy, her nervous flutterings verging on annoying, until Daldry brings her face to us in a close-up. Unlike any other actress on screen — from "Sophie's Choice" to "The Hours" — Streep can convey a wellspring of emotions in a single, silent gaze. Her face, here, is all angles and ageless Brahman beauty, hinting at endless stories beneath its porcelain surface. And it's her beatific smile at the end, as the lights go out, that comforts us.

Moore, whose character is beset by depression, delivers her every word as if it requires a Herculean effort. Hers is a cautious mask of suburban happiness that no one bothers to see through. Only her young son (a haunting, sweet-faced Jack Rovello) stares at his mother as if she's responsible for his every breath. Subtly, Moore allows us to see that her resentment of the hold he has on her equals her adoration of him.

And Kidman, in an ill-fitting flowered dress and droopy hair, and much-discussed prosthetic nose, is nearly unrecognizable. Her Virginia is high-strung yet unhurried, a woman who might envy a sister's inherent grace but still prefer the company of a blank page.

Daldry and Hare bookend "The Hours" with Woolf's famous 1941 suicide, allowing the film to start and end with an emotional rush of life imitating art as the action mirrors the writer's words. While most certainly not the feel-good movie of the season, "The Hours" is an elegant and amazing immersion into melancholia, made all the more palatable by stellar acting. ***** S

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