In the change from book to film, interesting choices have been made. The three central women, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), and Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), are all visually linked by their long hair and amber jewelry, while their homes are full of flowers and books. Momentum builds in the beginning with quick cuts from era to era showing the three women engaged in similar actions. Longer scenes in the middle set up the end, which returns to quicker segues. Excellent pacing and visual cues offset the obsessive navel-gazing and clunky dialogue forced on the actors.
Most of the hype has focused on the film's holy trinity of acting. As usual, Streep and Moore can do very little wrong. Streep makes you wish Hollywood would write more parts for women "of a certain age," and Moore's crumbling delicacy seems tailor-made for her role. Too much, perhaps, has been made of Kidman's performance, which relies mostly on a much-discussed prosthetic nose and a lot of staring off into the distance. Even so, it's nice to see a wildly popular actress not be afraid to get all unglamorous. Otherwise, the cast is very strong, particularly in the supporting roles, where John C. Reilly, Stephen Dilane, and Ed Harris turn in understated but vital performances as Dan Brown, Leonard Woolf, and Richard Brown, respectively.
Poor Ed Harris in particular is saddled with cumbersome exposition in his dialogue, but suffers it nobly. Someone on imdb.com called it "self-consciously articulate dialogue" -- another sign of the literary intruding. The elaborate language can be distracting, particularly for newcomers to the story, but it's an interesting way to keep the movie's heritage in view, especially in light of assorted liberties that have been taken with plot and character.
Channeling Mrs. Dalloway works well, but only if the audience recognizes that's what the movie is doing. This makes the tight shots that much more interesting, since Woolf's novel takes such long swooning looks at London. In this film, New York City has fewer verticals and more dark alleys, while Los Angeles is all sleepy suburban interiors. One of the few long shots is of Laura Brown's immaculate cookie cutter neighborhood, idealized as a Norman Rockwell painting. You wonder why New York hasn't been treated the same way, given at least one long shot to show the vitality of cities that Woolf adored. A subtitle identifies Clarissa Vaughn's reality as "New York City 2001," never acknowledging exactly when in 2001. It would be interesting to see how this movie treated September 11th, and how that would affect the character's relationship with the city.
Is The Hours worth the hype? For the finished product and a few editorial decisions, no. For design, ambition, and some of the performances, yes. The challenge for The Hours, novel and film, is to integrate life and art. Neither medium does it seamlessly, but both deserve applause for trying.