'Hours' of delight

Virginia Woolf is in style again, five years after her novel "Mrs. Dalloway" became a popular Vanessa Redgrave movie.

Woolf's memory pervades "The Hours," based on Michael Cunningham's literate novel, which was inspired by the pioneering British author in several ways. She's one of the three main characters, and the others are women who share her spirit in some way.

More deeply, "The Hours" is a modernist movie in the same way Woolf's important works are modernist books.

Like them, the film strays from linear action and cause-and-effect psychology. Instead it weaves an elegant web of images, incidents, and words that gain force from their interplay within the moviegoer's mind.

Leaping among three different time periods, the movie devotes approximately equal time to its three protagonists.

One is Woolf herself in the difficult hours just before her suicide in 1941. The second is a Los Angeles housewife in 1949, stricken with inexplicable despair on her husband's birthday. The third is a liberated New York woman, preparing a celebration for a friend who's been brought low by illness.

What these women have in common is outwardly contented lives invaded by unwelcome intimations of mortality and despondency.

Directed by Stephen Daldry from David Hare's screenplay, the movie follows all of Cunningham's major cues, including his time-jumping structure. This is refreshing after last summer's "Possession," which turned A.S. Byatt's kaleidoscopic novel into a trite Hollywood romance with none of the book's jaunty intellectual fun.

Most impressive is Daldry's skill in bringing out the recurring motifs - kisses, parties, partings - that transform the story from a collection of isolated episodes into a subtly unified whole.

Moviegoers may reject "The Hours" as too much work, or they may embrace it as they did "Memento" and "Pulp Fiction," which also played daring games with time and space.

If it does catch on at the box office, the main reason will probably be its luminous acting by Julianne Moore as the housewife, Meryl Streep as the New Yorker, and Nicole Kidman, giving the performance of her career behind her superbly crafted Virginia Woolf makeup.

This is easily one of the year's best pictures, and Oscar will surely take note.

Rated R; contains adult themes.

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