'I stayed alive for you, but now you have to let me go,' says an AIDS-ravaged man to his friend and former lover. That pretty much sets the tone for this wrenching film with a non-linear structure that's willing to confront pain and suffering in a way that would be anathema to Hollywood. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham, The Hours is a bold attempt to adapt the thematically interwoven stories of Virginia Woolf's last days before her suicide in 1941 and the lives of a '50s housewife and a present-day New York editor. For its seriousness, high literary aspirations and stunning acting, the film can only be applauded. Yet unlike the magical adaptation of The English Patient, which some feel actually improved on Michael Ondaatje's novel, The Hours only partially succeeds in capturing the book's lived textures.

The film is bookended by Woolf's suicidal drowning in a local river, her pockets loaded with stones, the image of her body pulled by the current through the brown weedy water reinforced by Philip Glass's portentous score. The rushing current mirrors the fluid, unpunctuated style elected by screenwriter David Hare to interweave the three portraits. Woolf (Nicole Kidman, hiding behind a proboscis and smoke-cured voice), is driven to suicide by the madness colonizing her, despite the legendary devotion of husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane). In New York, editor Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep)--nicknamed Mrs. Dalloway by her poet friend Richard (Ed Harris), the man dying of AIDS--plans a party to celebrate a prestigious poetry prize he's been awarded. In this most poignant and fleshed-out panel in the triptych, Clarissa, now in a relationship with a woman, yearns for the peak period when she and Richard were youthful lovers. In the third story, with its surprising link to the Richard/Clarissa story (which I won't reveal), suburban housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is trapped with an adored son in an asphyxiating marriage. Her story also interwines with the other two through her passion for Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway--in fact, the film, as in the novel, evokes a transgenerational community based on a single potent literary work.

To capture the novel's alternating stories--which are abidingly sad and built around the impulse to self-annihilation--Hare fractured the original, reweaving it in smaller increments and discovering fresh connections. Exactly how Laura Brown connects to the Clarissa story, and the identity of her son, is thrillingly revealed in a single deft image. Gestures and motifs echo, ricochet and repeat--just as Laura tosses her failed cake into the trash, so Clarissa sweeps the 'crab thing' into the garbage after tragedy has annulled the party. In each story, the three heroines kiss other women on the mouth. If Bloomsbury was ambisexual, so are this film's women, while Richard once commuted from Clarissa's bed to a boyfriend's. In fact, the sexuality of The Hours may make straights feel hopelessly square, and perhaps it's fair, if not p.c., to say that it will carry more resonance for gay viewers.

Because the novel is built on interior epiphanies, at times The Hours turns incoherent: What, you wonder, is basically ailing these able-bodied, well-fixed, yet hugely depressed women? Can we really be expected to sympathize with Woolf's servant problem? What would interest Woolf scholars here comes off as petulance. And while the novel's subtext points to repressed lesbian leanings, in the film Laura Brown's angst remains mystifying. Glass' maddening, repetitive score (which even Miramax poobah Harvey Weinstein disliked) acts like another stone in Woolf's pocket. And while ever the pro, Kidman's disguise is a distraction; she impersonates rather than embodies. (One clever insider casting choice: Laura Brown's son is the image of Michael Cunningham.)

In the press notes, the actors uniformly marvel that anyone could make a movie of this book. The truth is, maybe you can't. Yet this honorable effort by an inspired team led by director Stephen Daldry not only distills a melancholy poetry and power all its own, it may send you back to Cunningham's novel or, better yet, Virginia Woolf.

-Erica Abeel