The Hours Will Win Awards By More Than a Schnozz

Stephen Daldry’s The Hours , from the screenplay by David Hare, based on the novel by Michael Cunningham, has already been voted the Best Film of 2002 by the fast-forward-looking members of the National Board of Review, who always steal a march on us more deliberative types in the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics, not to mention our esteemed colleagues in the Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston critics’ groups. Anyway, the awards sweepstakes season is upon us, and The Hours is a deservedly strong contender for top honors everywhere. Mr. Daldry and Mr. Hare have succeeded in preserving and even enhancing both the episodic structure and the spiritual essence of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Cunningham novel, with the help of an exemplary acting ensemble sparked by Nicole Kidman’s extraordinary incarnation of Virginia Woolf, fake nose and all. In the past, I have scoffed at the awards handed out to beautiful actresses simply for making themselves over to look less attractive and, hence, supposedly more “realistic.” But Ms. Kidman has gone beyond her self-sacrificial makeup to portray a shyly intelligent, ruefully humorous woman, cursed with too much laser-beam lucidity and acuity to stay alive in the face of her tragically misperceived image as a mediocrity.

Mr. Cunningham has imagined two other women vicariously infected with Woolf’s conflicts by reading her Mrs. Dalloway . We begin and end with Woolf in England in 1923 and 1941. In between, we jump back and forth between Julianne Moore’s Laura Brown, a tormented, quasi-suicidal, pregnant housewife in late-40′s and early-50′s Los Angeles, with a loving husband named Dan (John C. Reilly) and an adoring little boy named Richie (Jack Rovello), and Meryl Streep’s Clarissa Vaughn, who lives in present-day New York City and has a teenage daughter named Julia (Claire Danes), a live-in lesbian girlfriend, Sally Lester (Allison Janney), and a dying-from-AIDS ex-lover named Richard (Ed Harris). Clarissa was christened Mrs. Dalloway early in her life because she shared both Mrs. Dalloway’s first name and her penchant for parties and flowers.

I have been told that the quick-cutting trailer for The Hours makes the movie look choppy and incoherent. Believe me, it is anything but. Each story is packed with suspense, feeling and a poetic wisdom about time, eternity and mortality. Consequently, though this is a film mostly about women, it hardly qualifies as a chick flick.

The very plot of the book would have been inconceivable for an American movie until very recently. Not only are there two suicides and one emotionally painful parental desertion, there is also a plenitude of lesbian overtures and attachments. Virginia Woolf is, of course, married to Leonard Woolf (Stephen Dillane), but she shares an incestuous kiss with her sister, Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson). For her part, Laura Brown initiates an intimate kiss with a more reluctant neighbor named Kitty (Toni Collette), and Clarissa Vaughan reaffirms her sexual commitment to Sally Lester with a climactic major-league kiss of her own. I can just see L.B. Mayer squirming in his seat. The book goes even farther, with such cinematically unused characters as

Julia Vaughan’s ostentatiously lesbian girlfriend Mary, who looks down on old “bourgeois queers” like Clarissa and Sally, who have respectable jobs and non-inflammatory lifestyles. There is also a gay male movie star who has just “come out,” and who has lunch with Sally and a gay novelist friend to float the idea of an expensive action movie with an overtly gay hero.

I suspect that Mr. Hare’s deletions from the novel make this screenplay more satisfactorily concise than it would be with all the book’s proudly deviant detail. It is a question of some of Mr. Cunningham’s conceits not playing as well on the screen as they read on the printed page. Yet the film is not unworthy of the novelist’s graceful prose, because of the eloquent presence, physical and emotional energy, and visual vividness of even the players in the smaller parts, such as Clarissa Vaughan’s flower-shop lady, who is lifted to the heavens by the illustrious Eileen Atkins, and the self-caricaturing gay writer Louis Waters, enacted with a generous twinkle of camp mischief by Jeff Daniels.

There is also a child actor named Jack Rovello with eyes that are pools of sorrow, emotional neediness and very ominous vulnerability. Master Rovello only confirms my frequently mentioned impression that we are living in a golden age of child actors, as well as at the dawn of a new age of truly independent, original and anti-formulaic cinema, of which The Hours is only the most recent example.

Solaris: A Passionate Romance

Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris , from his own screenplay, may never find its optimum audience, because many adult viewers who would enjoy a passionate love story like this one will pass on seeing the movie because it’s being promoted as science fiction, while the younger fans of sci-fi will soon sniff out the absence of action and video-game-like gadgetry and stay away in droves as well.

In the context of this marketing misadventure, it might be well to trace the origins of this non-bottom-line project in Andrei Tarkovsky’s three-hour 1972 Russian sci-fi film, adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel, which like Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is as much, if not more, about inner space as outer space.

Curiously, Tarkovsky (1932-1986) reportedly intended his Solaris to serve as a warmly humanist rebuke to the perceived coldness and emotional sterility of 2001 . The Tarkovsky Solaris is excitedly speculative about its subject, with frequent references to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Cervantes among the many cultural commentators who have viewed humankind’s quest for new worlds as an expensive effort to reconfirm the human race’s collective mind as the sole consciousness of the cosmos. But the love story in the earlier Solaris is bloodlessly cerebral next to the visceral romanticism in the Soderbergh Solaris .

As the production notes tell us, Soderbergh was approached by an executive at Twentieth Century Fox to undertake any science-fiction project he wanted. Mr. Soderbergh replied that he was not particularly interested in the genre itself, but would consider doing a new version of Solaris , having both read the novel and seen the original movie. “As fate would have it,” the production notes continue, “Lightstorm Entertainment, which has a deal at Fox, held the rights to the seminal works. Lightstorm’s James Cameron, Rae Sanchini and Jon Landau had spent five years securing deals with both the author and the Russian governmental organization Mosfilm, which owns the 1972 Russian film based on the novel, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.

“Soderbergh met with Cameron, Landau and Sanchini over dinner to discuss Solaris . ‘I told them I had an idea of how to do this,’ Soderbergh recalls, ‘but I wanted to write the screenplay on spec; I didn’t want to make a deal to do it. I explained my approach and what I wanted to focus on and the ways in which I thought it would be different from the book and from Tarkovsky’s movie.’”

The biggest difference in the two movies is between the nebbishy-looking male protagonist in the Tarkovksy and action-hero-like George Clooney as the widower Kelvin, who finds his dead wife apparently alive on the possibly malignant oceanic planet of Solaris. There is also a new back story concerning Kelvin’s life on earth with Rheya before she committed suicide. In this respect, Mr. Soderbergh’s screenplay is closer to the Lem novel than to the Tarkovsky film.

Still, Natascha McElhone does not have all that much to work with as both the Rheya who’s alive and later dead on Earth, and the Solaris replica of Rheya. Fortunately, Ms. McElhone’s beauty projects enough of a wordless mystery in itself to sustain the romance of her reappearance without a great deal of tedious verbalization. Mr. Clooney continues his quest for challenging roles requiring more than the effortless charm his once-in-a-generation good looks can turn on so easily. His Kelvin in Solaris is prepared in his moody way to give up the Earth-and perhaps even life itself-to gain even a very problematic second chance to be with his beloved, and to be worthy of her. It is hard to think of any love in this world or any other that is more emotionally compelling.

The Tarkovsky Solaris enjoys a big edge in its visualization of the chaotic ocean of the planet and is less relentlessly gloomy in its mise en scène . But I prefer Soderbergh’s concentration on his two lovers over Tarkovsky’s mostly male, mostly patriarcha l debating societies. I have been suspicious for a long time of all the accolades bestowed by many of my colleagues on the work of Tarkovsky. Where they see greatness, I see only grandiosity, and a laborious, overlong grandiosity at that.

Mr. Clooney and Ms. McElhone are ably supported by a very small crew of functioning witnesses to the bizarre psychic convulsions instigated by the living planet of Solaris . These include Viola Davis as Helen Gordon, an authoritative African-American defender of reality, sanity and human identity against the possibly nefarious designs of Solaris; Jeremy Davies as the jittery and deceptively well-adjusted Snow; and Ulrich Tukur, whose guilt-ridden doubts as space explorer Gibarian prove to be his undoing.

As I indicated at the outset, Solaris may not be for everyone, what with its soulful despondency and its constricted view of existence, but these days I am just in the mood for it.

Promising Roll In the Hay

Hilary Birmingham’s Tully , from a screenplay by Matt Drake and Ms. Birmingham, based on a short story by Tom McNeal, is set in a farm community in which farmers are shown actually working their land instead of sitting around waiting for crop circles to appear. In her first film, Ms. Birmingham displays a talent for deploying her characters in airy, spacious settings without resorting to distractingly scenic long shots. The family farm of Tully Coates Sr. (Bob Burrus) is worked by the father with his two motherless sons, Tully Coates Jr. (Anson Mount) and Earl Coates (Glenn Fitzgerald). Young Tully, the eponymous protagonist, is introduced as a notorious womanizer and a bit of a bully toward his younger brother, Earl. The very talented and attractive Julianne Nicholson, one of the best things to hit the late, lamented (by me, anyway) Ally McBeal show, plays college-girl neighbor Ella Smalley from down the road a piece. Ella likes Tully, but is wary of his womanizing ways. In fact, Tully becomes something of a pain when push comes to shove, but there are devastating family secrets in the Tully household to be revealed before he can become man enough to accept Ella’s generous and grown-up love. In the meantime, he genially allows himself to be seduced by tough-talking April Reece (Catherine Kellner), a part-time stripper with a certain comic frankness. The acting is good and airy, like the setting, in this much more than promising first film.

My Mistake Department

A sentence was inadvertently garbled in my recent review of Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven . The offending sentence should have read: “Yet even with Sirk, whom I championed in The American Cinema back when he was much less fashionable than he is today, I always appreciated his romantic works like Written on the Wind (1956) (though I preferred the book’s ending), The Tarnished Angels and A Time to Love and a Time to Die (both 1958) over the more ironic Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959).”