IN THE OPENING SCENE OF STEPHEN DALDRY'S The Hours, Nicole Kidman wades into a chilly English river clad in thick Lisle stockings, a shapeless bag of an overcoat, its pockets filled with stones, and a prosthetic nose so imposing it may qualify for Best Actress all by itself. Or would, if it didn't face stiff competition from its owner, who's already half way to an Oscar by rendering her gorgeous face borderline ugly. The Hours, which is based on a soulful and inventive Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, covers a single ordinary yet momentous day in each of the lives of three women from different eras. Kidman, unrecognizable save for her dainty little button of a mouth, does a brave, sulky star turn as a severely depressed Virginia Woolf, trapped against her will in the London suburb of Richmond, where she pines for the big city that doctors have deemed bad for her health, tries to hold herself this side of mental illness, and prepares to write her most famous novel, Mrs. Dalloway.

The novel's central character, a wealthy matron named Clarissa who's arranging a party, gives rise in the movie to an equally privileged and troubled contemporary Clarissa (Meryl Streep), who's out and about in her Manhattan neighborhood gathering provisions for the party she's giving for her friend and former lover Richard (a marvelously dissipated, yet fiery Ed Harris), a poet who's dying of AIDS. Half a century earlier, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore, lips aquiver), the unhappy young wife of a World War II veteran, sits in her modest Los Angeles tract house, reading Mrs. Dalloway and trying to make a birthday cake for her husband with the help of her little boy, also named Richard.

On the whole, not a promising crew. As The Hours unfolds, it produces not one but three potential suicides, but its real subject — and the one that gets it into trouble — is the tumultuous inner lives of the three women: Clarissa, wondering how she can go on without Richard; Laura, wondering how she can go on with her husband; and Virginia, wondering how she can go on period. Inner life is much harder to accomplish on the screen than on the page, but English playwright David Hare's crisp screenplay adroitly, and without recourse to the usual props of voiceover or the flashbacks that abound in the novel, keeps faith with Cunningham's meditative prose while adding enough unobtrusive exposition to externalize the characters' emotional lives. Daldry, whose first film was the likable Billy Elliot, makes the most of Cunningham's flair for depicting the small details that are so salient in many women's lives.

Still, the movie sags badly in the middle, swirling around itself without making headway, most noticeably in the vicinity of Streep, who gives a distracted, lackluster performance. Some of this has to do with weaknesses in the novel, whose least persuasive character is Clarissa, a woman so neurasthenic, so prone to collapse at the slightest mishap, that's it hard to see why Richard, or anyone, would spend a lifetime being obsessed with her. Cunningham, like the Bloomsbury writer he so adores, has a profound grasp of the way the mind takes in its physical environment. At the same time, he can be maddeningly precious in his relentless pursuit of peripheral detail. No change in the weather, no drop of a flower petal, no household item goes unsung. (“A metal lid kisses the rim of its pan,” for instance, may be one detail more than we need to visualize a domestic morning in L.A.) You can only cram so much of this stuff into a movie without putting your audience to sleep. Moreover, Cunningham's habit of bestowing homosexual impulses on almost every one of his characters strains credibility, even when the setting is Greenwich Village. That said, it's the minor gay characters who give the movie some much-needed juice, notably Allison Janney, fetchingly boyish as Clarissa's solicitous girlfriend, Sally, and Jeff Daniels, pudgy and eager to please as Richard's former lover. In general, the movie is held up by its supporting cast. Toni Collette is wonderful as Laura's compulsively chipper neighbor, as are Clare Danes as Clarissa's truculent daughter, Steve Dillane as Leonard Woolf, and John C. Reilly as Laura's amiably clueless husband. And though Moore has done finer acting this year (in Far from Heaven), it's her character who holds our attention as the film builds to its climax. For as it turns out, of the three women it's mousy, retiring Laura who, inspired by Mrs. Dalloway, makes the most radical and troubling decision. It returns to haunt her, but she holds firm, because, as she says with hindsight of her former existence, “It was death. I chose life.”

THE HOURS | Directed by STEPHEN DALDRY | Written by DAVID HARE | Based on the book by Michael Cunningham Produced by SCOTT RUDIN and ROBERT FOX | Released by Paramount Pictures | At selected theaters

LA Weekly