Although in recent times I’ve increasingly paid less attention to the Oscars, the 2003 race is already shaping up as an exception. The reason, quite simply, is that the past year has been such a rich one for the kinds of movies that Oscar is designed to reward. Indeed, there are now more plausible candidates for Best Picture than there are slots to hold them. The contenders include Gangs of New York, About Schmidt, Lord of the Rings 2: The Two Towers, Far from Heaven, Chicago, Adaptation and Road to Perdition, as well as the out-of-left-field crowd-pleasers My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bowling for Columbine.

If I had to place my bets right now, though, I’d pick Stephen Daldry’s The Hours as the film most likely to capture the Academy’s top trophy.

For some filmgoers, that prediction might register as a compliment and recommendation, while for others it would constitute a fair warning. I intend it, instead, as a simple description: Not only is The Hours the kind of movie that seems hand-tooled to win Best Picture–I said the same of A Beautiful Mind last year–but its cumulative strengths are more than sufficient, I think, to place it at the head of an impressively crowded field.

Those strengths include Daldry’s nuanced handling of material with impeccably high-toned literary credentials; Michael Cunningham’s acclaimed novel, which pays tribute to the life and work of novelist Virginia Woolf, was adapted for the screen by playwright David Hare. In addition, The Hours also features striking performances by three outstanding actresses: Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore.

Yet, rather paradoxically, the achievement of The Hours also owes something to its inherent liabilities, and to one in particular: It interweaves three stories separated from each other by considerable amounts of time and space. Movies which try to integrate disparate narrative strands are notoriously hard to pull off. Certain strands can easily end up seeming more important, affecting or successful than others. That Daldry and company make The Hours feel not only coherent but unified, on the deepest emotional and thematic levels, is the chief mark of their film’s ambitious and particular alchemy.

Another potential liability is that the narrative link connecting all three stories in The Hours is a novel viewers cannot be presumed to have read (indeed, I haven’t): Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

Can a movie really work if its central conceit hinges on an unfamiliar book? Here, the answer is an improbable but ingeniously persuasive yes. Mrs. Dalloway, in effect, is a kind of latter-day Don Quixote or Moby-Dick: we know it even if we haven’t read it. A tale of modern manners and discontents, it hinges on a dinner party, an artist and a suicide.

For the Aristotelean unities of time and place, The Hours substitutes another: Each of its three stories takes place in a single day. In rural England of 1923, a skittish, depressive Virginia Woolf (Kidman), in the midst of composing Mrs. Dalloway, struggles through the challenges of a day made outwardly remarkable only by a stressful argument with her husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane) and a visit from the noisy clan of her sister, Vannessa Bell (Miranda Richardson).

The movie’s second story transpires in a bright antiseptic California suburb of the ’50s, where housewife Laura Brown (Moore), in a day full of ordinary hassles with her kindly businessman husband (John C. Reilly) and young son (Jack Rovello), is reading Woolf’s novel and simultaneously lurching toward a mental meltdown. Meanwhile the third story, a present-day, American variation of the one Woolf tells in Mrs. Dalloway, concerns Clarissa Vaughan (Streep), a high-strung New Yorker attempting to give a large dinner party in honor of her longtime friend Richard (Ed Harris), a poet dying of AIDS.

For the reader waiting for me to declare myself regarding The Hours–did I like it? Was I moved by it?–the answer in both cases is yes, very much. But this is more despite the various literary elements noted above than because of them: Being no fan of Virginia Woolf or her milieu, nor of most contemporary fictions like Cunningham’s, I was won over by the film’s unexpected trove of cinematic lures.

The Hours is a hushed film; brooding, keenly observant and devoid of standard-issue plot machinations. The first two stories, which are the best, show us days in which “nothing happens.” Woolf walks in her garden, has a snappish exchange with the cook and watches the comings and goings of her family. Laura Brown bakes a cake, throws it away and tries again, and listens to a neighbor’s tearful reports of health problems. The film is magical at the quietest, most offhand of these moments, when it seems to catch the evanescence of life itself.

Its deft shifting between decades and lives builds a spellbinding mood, aided by the performances of three women who demonstrate the artistic power that, in certain instances, still attaches to the idea of movie star.

For my money, Kidman is the most extraordinary. With her beauty and normal appearance shielded by a prosthetic nose, she makes a Woolf a creature perched on the most precarious of mental precipices; one loud noise, you think, would make her splinter like glass. Moore registers a more outwardly robust, California version of the same deep vulnerability, in a performance that nicely bookends her work as another overwhelmed 50s housewife in Far from Heaven.

If Streep is a bit less striking she’s still Streep, and her relative limitations here stem largely from the material. At the center of the film’s present-day section is an extended encounter between Clarissa and her AIDS-stricken poet friend. Although the performers are game enough (Ed Harris’ work is a another likely Oscar candidate), these scenes feel overwrought, awkwardly obvious and more conventionally melodramatic than the other, more interior stories.

Indeed, The Hours is at its most riveting when it subordinates words to images–a surprising quality for a heavily “literary” film with a number of hyper-articulate characters. The movie’s sensual appeal also includes the wraparound seduction of Philip Glass’ lush, propulsive score. Some have found the music overused and too insistent, yet it provides an undeniably effective–and quite beautiful–anchor and correlation for the “musicality” of the film’s unfolding narrative.

Given that The Hours, like a big Hollywood star vehicle-cum-literary adaptation of old, is more a producer’s package than an auteur film, it is curious that the producers chose Brits to write and direct a story that’s two-thirds American. As a result, the film’s California and New York sections occasionally lack persuasive cultural textures and flavors. Daldry, who previously directed Billy Elliott, is obviously less a determined social realist (or an original visual stylist) than he is a capable, theater-trained director of actors. For his part, scripter Hare perhaps didn’t care overly much about the movie’s ambient authenticity given that his work was dominated by the architectural challenge of integrating three disparate stories.

His success at that task is, again, the key to the film’s unusual appeal. At first, the jumping between stories feels odd. Later, once the rhythms of the intercutting are established, the movement proves both entrancing and subtly mysterious. What is the connection, we wonder, between these lives and sorrows, decades and continents apart as they are?

Aside from the Mrs. Dalloway thread and an eventual link between the two American stories (which I won’t reveal), the film carefully establishes a set of resonances among separate sections and characters that all hinge, finally, on what might be called acts of radical self-determination, including suicide.

Does The Hours endorse suicide as an existential choice? The film certainly deserves to provoke discussion along these lines. One can imagine a conservative critique that sees it as valorizing not only suicide but various other forms of selfishness: vanity, narcissism, blame-laying, self-pity, hyper-aestheticism, artistic preciousness, and so on. Such an analysis, in fact, even strikes me as essentially valid–as far as it goes.

What it doesn’t reach, however, is the film’s philosophic sense of a deeper purpose to these defining modern malaises. Ultimately, the act–or threat–of suicide serves not to deny or obliterate life, but to underscore the preciousness of each moment, day or hour. Hence the title. No matter how damaging they may be to oneself or others, in every act of radical self-determination lies the hope of a life fully lived, and life fully honored.

There is this too: Such acts, and the dreams they imply, are at the very core of the movie-going experience. That gives The Hours a layer of meaning as a film it couldn’t possibly have on the page. When, in the film’s first and last moments, we see Virginia Woolf step into the River Ouse to end her life, we catch an image of ourselves slipping into the dream-flux of every movie: alone, willing, ready for sweet release. EndBlock