January 27, 2003 12:00 PM

Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris

I once asked a friend who had just seen a Broadway play how the acting was. “Well, there certainly was a lot of it,” he said. So too with The Hours, an estimable but studied movie featuring superb performances by an elite trio of leading ladies. Did I admire it? Yes. Did I love it? No.

The Hours, based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer-winning 1998 novel and directed with great sensitivity by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot), follows three women during a pivotal day in each of their lives. The first is Englishwoman Virginia Woolf (Kidman), who in 1923 is starting to write Mrs. Dalloway, her novel in which a woman’s life is revealed in a single day. The second is an unhappy housewife (Moore) in 1951 in L.A.; the last is a successful book editor (Streep) in 2001 in Manhattan. All three feel themselves unraveling. They grapple with the big question: What is happiness? There is a thread linking the three, though how closely Moore and Streep are tied together is revealed only at the end.

Watching Hours, one feels smart—and let’s be honest, a little smug—for understanding this self-consciously literary picture. “Aha!” you say to yourself as you make the connections between what Woolf says in one scene (someone in Dalloway will die “so that the rest of us shall value life more”) with what happens in another scene (a suicide). What’s sacrificed is emotion. Only the final scenes prove affecting and then more on an intellectual level than a heartfelt one.

In different ways each of the three actresses bowls you over. Kidman is all technique and tricks (including a fake nose), but it works. Moore is a miniaturist, conveying volumes with the tiniest of sad shrugs. Streep is a force of nature, so intensely present and vital that, when the movie’s over, you half expect to run into her on the street. (PG-13)

BOTTOM LINE: Mostly quality time

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