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Transformed by the soul of Woolf

'The Hours,' which stars an almost unrecognizable Nicole Kidman as the noted author, took more than a few months to complete.

November 03, 2002|David Gritten | Special to The Times

Richmond, England — Producer Scott Rudin sprawls casually in a director's chair, eyes darting between a monitor and the scene being played before him. We are in a London suburb on the banks of the Thames; a leafy walkway with glorious river views has been dressed to make it look as it did in 1923. A tall, forbidding, intense-looking woman with a big aquiline nose and faded auburn hair swept back into a severe bun walks alone, distractedly talking to herself, oblivious to the curious glances of passers-by.

"She'll die!" the woman mumbles. "She's going to die. That's what's going to happen. She'll kill herself. She'll kill herself over something that doesn't matter."

The woman is pale, her face bare of makeup. She wears stylish clothes carelessly: a straw hat perched on her head, a gray thigh-length cardigan over a floral print dress. Her brown shoes are scuffed, her silk stockings in terrible condition. As she speaks, she has the air of someone whose life is falling apart.

Director Stephen Daldry murmurs "Cut," and this unrecognizable woman relaxes, drifts over to meet a visitor to the set and brightly says, "Hi!" It's extraordinary. Even from a distance of 3 feet, even allowing that we have met before and even when she lapses cheerfully into her native Australian accent, it seems incredible that this could be Nicole Kidman. If you didn't know, you couldn't possibly guess.

But it is, of course. Kidman plays the distinguished English novelist Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," a film adaptation of Michael Cunningham's 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. "The Hours," distributed by Paramount in North America and by Miramax elsewhere, attempts to trace Woolf's creative process in writing her groundbreaking 1925 novel "Mrs. Dalloway," her suicide 16 years later, and the stories of two fictional women in more recent eras who were influenced by Woolf's life and work.

"Oh, I know," Kidman says of her astonishing transformation. She starts to move a hand up toward her large prosthetic nose but thinks better of it. "Well, you really have to get inside this character. You need to feel different."

She resumes her position for her walkway monologue and this time completes it to Daldry's satisfaction. From his perch behind the monitor, Rudin is beaming. "I'd have to say things are going well," he reflects. "After all, it's like we're making three little movies here."

One sees what he means. Three separate visits to the set of "The Hours" between March and June last year would have left any visitor unfamiliar with Cunningham's novel deeply puzzled about the story. The Virginia Woolf scenes were shot last, though one of them opens the film; it shows the novelist placing heavy stones into the pockets of her coat and walking into a river near her home.

One of the three stories in "The Hours" is contemporary and set in New York City. Its central character, played by Meryl Streep, is a middle-age woman, Clarissa (who shares a first name with Woolf's heroine Mrs. Dalloway). It tracks a landmark day in her life, during which she buys flowers and plans a party for her old friend Richard (Ed Harris), a poet suffering from the ravages of AIDS.

The film's third story takes place in 1951 Los Angeles, where Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a suburban housewife with a 6-year-old son, Richie, feels trapped by motherhood and by her marriage to Dan, (John C. Reilly), her dutiful, dull husband. Laura is reading "Mrs. Dalloway" and empathizes with its heroine, another woman whose life seems to be unraveling.

The emotional scene being shot during one of those earlier visits is set in Clarissa's book-cluttered apartment, fashioned by production designer Maria Djurkovic on a sound stage at Pinewood Studios, about 20 miles west of London. This is the climax of the Clarissa story; it is the end of the day of the planned party (which never materialized) and she is left with rooms full of flowers and uneaten food.

Streep, Allison Janney, who plays her girlfriend Sally, and Claire Danes (her daughter Julia) are dressed in robes, ready for bed. "Yeah, it's not a bad day when you go to work in your pajamas," Danes wisecracks as she drifts off set between scenes. Streep takes her cue from the clothes she is wearing; between setups she curls up on a sofa and falls asleep.

The food, an important component of this scene, has been imported from London's chic River Cafe: fresh salmon, fresh tuna, duck breasts and live crabs await consumption. The smell of the feast wafts under the noses of a frustrated crew, which is virtually salivating.

Ten days later and everything has changed. Shooting has shifted to an adjacent Pinewood sound stage, where Djurkovic has created Laura Brown's suburban L.A. home, all blond wood, with a 14-inch Zenith television in the living room, and a bathroom in which turquoise is the predominant color. Little Richie's bathroom boasts wallpaper with pictures of cowboys.

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