This is a three-fer: three stories in different time periods, always a
challenge to clarity. The three are dense with complex characters, some of
whom are high achievers, peaked by no less than Virginia Woolf. There
appears to be a connection between these stories, such as how lives are
influenced by the power of a book and the questions it raises about life and
death. The characters, as written, are fascinating and mysterious but the
real draw to this film enterprise is the cast and the awesome display of
acting talent. This picture will be a major contributor to the award
nomination scorecard on both sides of the gender aisle.
The genesis of the stories is the one in which we see the struggles, both
with sanity and the creative process, that Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman)
went through, specifically in the 1925 creation of her "Mrs. Dalloway".
Based on the Michael Cunningham novel, the subsequent stories are set in the
50s, the late 90s, with a prologue suggesting the circumstances of Virginia
Woolf's 1941 suicide, all of which results in a bit of storytelling
acrobatics via the editing bench whilst defying anyone who isn't familiar
with the source material to fully comprehend, let alone appreciate, the
relationships and the literary synergy amongst them that is being attempted
in movie terms.
As the film translates it from the literary sources, in 1920s London, Woolf
keeps her lesbian desires properly (for the times) harnessed. In return for
that propriety she has rejected one ardent suitor and has married the
colorless, steadfast Leonard Woolf (Stephen Dillane), an upperclass book
publisher. What price sublimation. The effect appears to be repression and
mood swings influencing her creative process. She declares to Woolf that
she's got the opening line -- a not insignificant milestone in the birthing
of a novel. She writes, "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers
herself" and is off on her creative journey.
The 1950s episode gets really confusing and threatens the entirety with a
melodramatic contrivance of a plot that might have been cut out of
"Pleasantville". Here we have the Browns, perfect husband Dan Brown (John C.
Reilly), troubled wife Laura (who has been reading "Mrs. Dalloway" by
Virginia Woolf) (Julianne Moore) and their also troubled,
overly-attached-to-his-mother, over-sensitive son
Richard who seems mesmerized by fears for his mother and what she might do,
to him, to the family, to herself. Somehow, this little boy with big dependent
eyes is on a wavelength with mom that defies us, the audience, until the plot
unwinds nearly to its climax; but what we do get from the understated Laura
is that she can't stop reading "Mrs. Dallaway" and it's putting her on a path
to making some drastic life changes. Of all the stories, this is the tonal
discord. Laura's behaviors are motivationally obscure, if not bewildering;
the style is unreasonably melodramatic; and it messes up the film's
In the third story, set much closer to our own time and full of familiar
details and pacing, book editor Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep) is the
care-giver of ex-lover and current AIDS patient, Pulitzer Prize winning
author Richard Brown (Ed Harris), crumbling physically before our eyes in a
warren of a room in a grafitti endowed commercial building in Manhattan.
Clarissa's plans for a party to celebrate his literary victory as much to
prop up his weakening desire to live, is the context of the developments.
Clarissa is living the modern lesbian life now with her sensitive, perfectly
understanding significant other, Sally (Allison Janney). Daughter Julia
(Claire Danes) shows up in time for the festivities, as well. The problem
with the party is the question about the honoree's inclination not to show
In these days when every mature actress who appears on a talk show or
interview complains of the dearth of interesting parts for women of their
years we have in this script by David Hare as perfect an assemblage of parts
as any six women could expect in one piece. It is to the great credit of the
filmmakers to have put these particular six together in it (as well as some
damn fine male performances, as well)... all of them actors who fully
understand and give life to literature in their distinct and fullsome way.
This is not a perfect film, depending more than it should on the literary
fare that it springs from, but it is not to be missed by anyone who deeply
enjoys exquisite performance.
The score, by Philip Glass, ("Naqoyqatsi", "Koyaanisqatsi") intrusively
points out all the moments when you're supposed to be feeling some emotion,
sparing no opportunity to shove it into the sphere of out and out melodrama,
like a silent movie accompaniment. A little of it would be evocative but
Glass seems to revel in his opportunity to burn his grinding theme into your
consciousness, throwing subtlety to the wind. Perhaps it was in the name of
period style, an ill-considered choice.
The cinematography, another contribution of award level quality, is by Seamus
McGarvey ("Wit", "Enigma", "High Fidelity").
~~ Jules Brenner