In this story of three women of different eras whose lives connect and parallel each other, we see each of them struggle between despair and meaning. Small moments repeat themselves as the same themes shimmer through the single day we spend with them. We see them wake. We see them prepare for a special occasion and we see them worry about family members who are worrying about them.
Nicole Kidman transforms not just her nose but her skin tones, posture, and even somehow her presence to play author Virginia Woolf, who has moved to the country in an attempt to cure her deep depression. She is looking forward to a visit from her sister (Miranda Richardson), longing to return to London, and writing a book called Mrs. Dalloway about one day in the life of a woman who is giving a party.
Julianne Moore is Laura Brown, a post-WWII suburban mother, pregnant with her second child. It is her husband’s birthday and she is trying to make a cake for his celebration.
Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughn, a present-day editor who is preparing a party for Richard (Ed Harris). He is a poet and novelist who is receiving a prestigious award. But he is very sick with AIDS and may not make it to the ceremony or the party.
Laura is reading Mrs. Dalloway. Richard’s nickname for Clarissa is “Mrs. Dalloway” because she shares her first name with the title character. Like Mrs. Dalloway, all three women get flowers. And, like her, all three share an emotional kiss with another woman. And all three try to find something to hold on to so that they can feel that their lives are worthwhile.
This is a smart, thoughtful, Oscar-bait movie, beautifully directed by Steven Daldry (“Billy Elliot”) and beautifully performed by Streep, Kidman, Moore, and supporting actors Harris, Claire Danes, and Toni Collette. Some audiences may find it pretentious, disturbing, or boring, but others will appreciate its subtlety and willingness to grapple with existential questions.
Parents should know that the movie has tense and sad situations, including two suicides and one near-suicide. A character speaks of having to have a serious operation. There are sexual references and situations including artificial insemination and same-sex kisses. Characters use strong language. Gay and bi-sexual characters are positively portrayed though sometimes anguished and isolated.
The Pulitzer-prize winning novel by Michael Cunningham is, according to the author, a tribute to Woolf’s view that “there are no ordinary lives, just inadequate ways of looking at them.” He says, too, that Woolf “spent her career writing the extraordinary, epic tales of people who seem to be doing nothing unusual at all. If most great writers scan the heavens like astrophysicists, Woolf looked penetratingly at the very small, like a microbiologist. Through her books, we understand that the workings of atomic particles are every bit as mysterious as the workings of galaxies – it all depends on whether you look out or look in.” Families who see this movie should talk about what this means, and how most of us are defined and define ourselves not by huge heroic adventures but by small connections and kindnesses. What did Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa find to give value and meaning to their lives? They have people to love and people who love them – what are they missing, and why? What is the significance of those three kisses, none of which seems to give the characters the comfort and intimacy they are seeking? Why does Cunningham give us three stories touched by the fictional character created by Woolf? Does he think that any of his characters are successful? How can you tell? What book could inspire you as Cunningham was inspired by Woolf?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Julia,” “Far from Heaven,” and another movie based on a Virginia Woolf book, “Orlando,” the story of a character who lives from Elizabethan times to the 20th century, first as a man and then as a woman. They might also like to see the movie version of “Mrs. Dalloway,” starring Vanessa Redgrave. And they might like to read more about Virginia Woolf and her friends, known as the Bloomsbury writers. This is a good place to start.