Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

What is it about Mrs. Dalloway? It is that the book was Virginia Woolf’s breakthrough novel? That it’s easier to read than the later ones? Or is it just that kiss?

It’s possible, of course, to read Mrs. Dalloway without pondering the kiss that middle-aged Clarissa Dalloway remembers exchanging with her girlhood friend Sally. But Woolf’s place in the glamorously polymorphous Bloomsbury Group has given it a special resonance for some members of her cult. When director Marleen Gorris filmed the novel six years ago, the kiss became central. And when novelist Michael Cunningham refracted Mrs. Dalloway’s saga into three interlocking stories and called it The Hours—Woolf’s original title for her book—he provided more fateful kisses. One of the smooches, cheekily enough, was even heterosexual. (Well, sort of.)

Although it won a Pulitzer, Cunningham’s book has begun to wither in the six years since it was published. An homage to Woolf that’s so precious it sometimes seems like a parody, the novel recounts the fictionalized (but fact-based) 1923 day on which Woolf began writing Mrs. Dalloway, which itself takes place in a single day. The novelist’s day is intertwined with two others: In contemporary Manhattan, another Clarissa prepares for a party for her friend (and long-ago lover) Richard, who has won a prestigious poetry prize and is deteriorating from AIDS. And in post-World War II Los Angeles, pregnant housewife Laura Brown tries to read a few pages of Mrs. Dalloway in between minding her clingy young son, Richie, and making a cake for another party, a family-only affair marking the birthday of her solid but uninteresting husband, Dan.

Mrs. Dalloway is so rich that Gorris’ film couldn’t help but impoverish it. The good news about The Hours is that Cunningham’s novel is rather shallow, so a film adaptation can only better it. Part of the credit goes, of course, to director Stephen Daldry (whose debut was the halfway-good Billy Elliot) and scripter David Hare, who even manages to improve one of Cunningham’s bett jokes (a lighthearted dig at San Francisco). The most important upgrade, though, is the film’s cast, which endows the thin characters with flesh. Nicole Kidman (wearing a much-celebrated prosthetic nose) compellingly impersonates Woolf, and Julianne Moore is subtly poignant as Laura, a role that requires her to interact mostly with a little boy. The film also comes appointed with wonderful little turns by other substantial talents: Miranda Richardson as Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell; Stephen Dillane as the fiercely protective Leonard Woolf; Toni Collette as Laura’s glamorous neighbor, Kitty; Claire Danes as Clarissa’s down-to-earth daughter, Julia; and actress/Woolf expert/Mrs. Dalloway scripter Eileen Atkins as Clarissa’s regular florist, Barbara.

Mortality haunts Mrs. Dalloway, but Woolf’s novel is a kiddie ride next to The Hours’ death trip. Both the book and the movie open with Woolf’s 1941 suicide, which is just the first of many appointments with the reaper (not all of them kept). In the Woolfs’ suburban garden in 1923, Vanessa’s children find a dying bird, a sickly patient that won’t survive as long under their care as Virginia will under Leonard’s. In 1951 L.A., Kitty drops by to announce that she’s headed for the hospital with a condition that could be fatal, and Laura considers downing an overdose of pills and leaving oversensitive Richie (Jack Rovello) to be raised by dim, well-meaning Dan (John C. Reilly). And in 2001 New York, book editor Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep, whose celebrity is invoked in Cunningham’s novel) tends to irascibly dying Richard (Ed Harris), who has long called her “Mrs. Dalloway.” Clarissa’s lover Sally (Allison Janney), Richard’s former lover Louis (Jeff Daniels), and a surprise guest all appear over the course of the day. Some of them discuss Richard’s novel, which contains a character modeled on Clarissa and ends with a suicide.

That’s not all of the scenario’s parallels. As he intertwines the three principal episodes, Daldry rhymes actions, words—including an ironic sentence from Woolf’s suicide note—and, of course, kisses. With these matching moments hammered home by the ostinatos of a few recycled Philip Glass pieces, The Hours can be overbearingly fussy. This is particularly true during the scenes from the contemporary chapter, whose self-consciousness is emphasized by the performances. Harris is altogether too twinkly as the supposedly tormented Richard, and Streep plays her customary upscale, high-strung twit at an even higher pitch than in Adaptation. (In Streep’s defense, no other actor would be likely to fare much better in a scene that requires someone to gasp, sob, and suddenly proclaim that she’s “lost happiness.”)

There are missteps in the other chapters, as well, notably a special-effects shot that tries too hard to connect Laura’s suicidal reverie to Woolf’s death. Still, the 1923 and 1951 passages are often extraordinary. Although movies adapted from novels understandably tend to be wordy, The Hours is most powerful when it’s nearly silent, its chosen character essentially alone: Woolf flees the sterility of her suburban home in an attempt to escape to London by train; Laura checks into a hotel in search of privacy and perhaps oblivion. For all the film’s overwrought attempts to convey the literary gambits of Cunningham’s novel, it’s these purely cinematic moments that come closest to the spirit of Mrs. Dalloway. They capture not the fleeting connection of a kiss, but a solitude that can be either salvation or doom. CP