(out of 5)
The feat of simply deciding to turn Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a film is reason enough to praise this effort, which could not have been a small challenge to make so well. Just how much of a risk did producer Scott Rudin take in selecting Stephen Daldry, director of the delicate ballet comedy-drama Billy Elliot, to helm the project, or getting David Hare, who previously adapted his play Plenty into a bloodless screenplay, to take Cunningham’s story of three internal monologues and turn them into a compelling drama? Need I also mention that he had the gall to hire Moulin Rouge sexpot Nicole Kidman to play the dowdy and emotionally unstable Virginia Woolf. As it turns out, the team Rudin has assembled here makes for the finest cinematic treat of the year; Hare’s screenplay not only has blood, it has a passionately pumping heart and organs of fire. Three women, all seemingly unconnected, are viewed experiencing a single, solitary day: In 1936 England, novelist Woolf has just embarked on the journey of writing her novel Mrs. Dalloway; fifties housewife Julianne Moore is reading the novel while suffocating the confines of the American Dream; and present-day Meryl Streep is getting ready to throw a party for her poet best friend (Ed Harris) who is dying of AIDS. The seamless inter-cutting between all three stories reveals the choices and challenges that face these women as their lives suddenly seem to stop at an impasse, awaiting their fateful decision to follow. All three of the leads are fantastic, none more compelling than the other, all of them exceptionally powerful. Streep has never been more elegant, Moore gives as good a performance as was seen in Far From Heaven the same year (that is, to say, perfect) and Kidman is totally undetectable in the role. Sure, you can blame it on the prosthetic nose she wears to visually blend more into the character, but really it’s her physical bearing, gravelly voice and the sadness in her eyes that forever tears down her image as Mrs. Tom Cruise and announces her as one of the finest actresses of her generation. The sublime supporting cast is not to be missed either, featuring Stephen Dillane (as Woolf’s perplexed husband), Toni Collette, Miranda Richardson, John C. Reilly, Claire Danes, Jeff Daniels and especially Allison Janney as Streep’s partner, all giving memorable performances whose quality is not diminished by the small quantity of time they spend on screen. Also look for a small appearance by Woolf scholar Eileen Atkins, who has played Woolf on stage, (impeccably) adapted her to the screen (Dalloway) and whose voice can be heard reading many books-on-tape versions of Woolf’s writing. If you loved this film as much as I did, go read the book if you have not done so already.
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Cinematography by Seamus McGarvey
Music by Philip Glass
Production Design by Maria Djurkovic
Costume Design by Ann Roth
Film Editing by Peter Boyle