No disrespect is meant in describing this as a consummate "women's picture." But inasmuch as the major-studio women's picture is practically a thing of the past, it will have to be a high-toned, high-flown one with illustrious literary connections. Two such connections, to be exact, the first to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham on which the film is based, and the second to Virginia Woolf, who is a principal character in it, battling madness in her rural sanctuary while composing her day-in-the-life novel, Mrs. Dalloway. The two other principal characters in this three-ring circus are latter-generation Mrs. Dalloways, one of them a post-WWII Los Angeles housewife and mother who is in the process of actually reading the book and acting on it (the danger of fiction!), and the other a present-day New York literary editor who most certainly has read it in the past and has been nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway" (her forename is Clarissa, but there's more to it than that) by her AIDS-afflicted former lover. Each of these, in common with the titular Mrs. Dalloway, has an "occasion" to prepare for, a husband's birthday and an ex-lover's poetry prize, respectively. And the action in each time zone, following the pattern of the Woolf novel, is concentrated in one day: "A woman's whole life in a single day," muses the author herself. Suicide is a prominent theme, a prominent option, in all three zones, as well as in Woolf's novel: "Someone has to die," the author again explicates, "that the rest of us should value life more." Implicit in the structure -- the parallel lives in chronological strata -- is a ringing testimonial to the universality and immortality of literature in general, and (resistant though some might be to the appointed representative) Virginia Woolf in particular, as well as a testimonial to the sisterhood of women of all ages and eras. And the omniscience of the point of view, the loftiness of the perch, comes with an uncommon complement of other attributes of the divine: compassion, clemency, absolution. Nowhere are these called so actively into play as when, at the end, two of the parallel lives turn out to be not strictly parallel but converging, and two powerhouse actresses -- Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore -- sit down for a cross-generational tête-à-tête that has all the electricity and intensity, if none of the animosity, of a heavyweight championship fight. If, when the dust settles, the movie can be said to be, like so many others, "life-affirming," it is important to add immediately that the affirmation is so tortured, so skeptical, so qualified as to give it, for a change, real meaning and impact. With Nicole Kidman (behind a distracting putty nose in the part of Mrs. Woolf), Ed Harris, John C. Reilly, Stephen Dillane, Miranda Richardson, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Jeff Daniels, Claire Danes; directed by Stephen Daldry. 2002.

Duncan Shepherd

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