The Hours is a film that raises many questions about appreciating life and making important decisions that change the course of one’s life. The film takes place during three generations: the 1920’s, the 1950’s and the 2000’s. Each generation features a woman on the cusp of making a monumental choice that — she is literally on the threshold. In the 1920’s, author Virginia Woolf is penning her classic Mrs. Dalloway, however she is also evaluating her dormant life in recuperation after a nervous breakdown; In the 1950’s, expectant housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), is reading Mrs. Dalloway, while coming to terms with the fact that she is leading a life she desperately wants out of; finally in the 2000’s there is a modern Mrs. Dalloway in Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), a woman who overplots and coordinates her life to avoid facing difficult questions about her own happiness. The Hours had a mixed reception upon its release – some praising it for the acting and the visual look, while others lamenting of its supposed bleak message. The film does ask questions about personal happiness and responsiblity to others, and there are no easy answers given — instead the viewer is asked to watch how these women’s life choices altered their lives as well as their loved ones’ lives.

Virginia Woolf is living in a London suburb with her husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane), while working on Mrs. Dalloway. She is recuperating from an episode and is essentially sequestered in her suburban estate to be “cured.” Leonard is at his wits end trying to figure out how to help his wife, who seems inconsolalbe. Surly, moody and pallid, Virginia stalks the house like a dark cloud. The two confront each other on a train platform after she disappears, and there seems to be some sort of reconciliation. Miranda Richardson makes an appearence as Vanessa, Virginia’s sister. She brings along three children, and the stark difference between the vitality of the kids and the somber melancholy of Virginia couldn’t be more pronounced.

Laura Brown is living a seemingly idealic life with her husband, Dan Brown (John C. Reilly), and her young son, Richard (Jack Rovello). She is going through the motions of what a dutiful suburban wife is expected to be, and her husband, a likable, if dense fellow, doesn’t realize how unhappy she is. Like Virginia, Laura also sets into place a plan that will have devastating consequences on her child.

Clarissa Vaughn is a modern Manhattanite, who is planning a party for her best friend Richard (Ed Harris), a poet living with AIDS. Like Laura, she is in what appears to be an ideal relationship with Sally (Alison Janney), with whom she has a lovely daughter (Claire Danes). Like Laura, though, Clarissa’s life is much more complicated than how it appears, and she is also chewing her insides with regret and misery, especially when recalling the unrequited love she felt for Richard when they were younger.

The stories aren’t cheerful, but it would be a mistake to call them “depressing.” Even Virginia Woolf’s segment, which has a predictably tragic end, doesn’t come off a soley downbeat. The director, Stephen Daltry, does a masterful job in weaving the three stories together — quick cuts to images that link the stories, like a vase or a sink. It’s never confusing to know which era is being shown, because of the organized way the editing. Also important is the color used — especially in the 1950’s segment where it does resemble a sepia-toned photograph.

The performances are probably the strongest parts of the movie starting with the trio of lead actresses. Kidman, her picture-pretty visage hidden under a prosthetic nose, rubs off any glamor she had, and gives a dark and disturbing performance as the doomed Virginia Woolf. It’s an incredible transformation, complete with a rasp of a voice, a stooped posture and a plodding march of a walk. Moore is also very good, giving off a quiet, though urgent performance that highlights the desperation her character feels. Streep is the best of the three, fully inhabiting her character, and giving a textbook example of excellent acting. The three are supporting by a glittery cast. Toni Collette gives a show-stopping cameo as Laura Brown’s best friend — in her short time onscreen (all of maybe ten minutes), she steals the film as a fellow 1950’s housewife who has been successfully molded into the model wife, despite a tragic secret of her own. The scene with Moore and Collette is electric. The other supporting players don’t impress as much as Collette, though Richardson, Dillane and Danes are both very good. Janney and Jeff Daniels (who plays Richard’s ex-lover) both are wasted in nondescript roles, while Harris tears through his scenes with unappetizing gusto.

Ultimately, this movie was uplifting for me because the women learned to appreciate life on their terms. It’s a hard-won appreciation, that has been achieved by serious knocks and paying of dues. One may not agree with the choices the women made, and some are extremely self-indulgent and destructive, but one cannot ignore that the decisions had to have been made.