The Hours is an important film. You don’t even need to watch it to know that. The advertising for its UK release tells you how important it is. No glib exclamation from a film or lifestyle magazine appears on the tastefully designed posters. Instead, we are offered extracts of reviews from the LA and NY Times, telling us what it is that makes the film so great and why we should not just like it, but accept it for the mighty work of art it must surely be. After all, the film has now become the literary heavyweight of Oscarâ„¢ contenders.

The Hours is a complex narrative that intertwines the lives of three women over the course of eighty years. Opening with the suicide of Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), it travels back to the 1920s, as she is engaged in writing her novel Mrs Dalloway. Shift to the 1950s and Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) is a housewife whose life has reached a dead end. Her only solace is her copy of Woolf’s novel. With the dawn of a new millennium, little appears to have changed. Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is an editor for a New York publishing company who is looking after a former lover and literary giant (Ed Harris), who is dying of AIDS. Michael Cunninghams’s novel draws parallels between the women, showing their desperation to live their life to the full whilst simultaneously running away from it.

Stephen Daldry’s remarkable adaptation is an intelligent and moving film. From the opening shot of the flowing river, accompanied by the fluid arpeggios of Philip Glass’ score, Daldry hardly puts a foot wrong. Not that he is alone in this task. David Hare’s script is by turns wistful and involving. At its most successful when exploring the process of writing, elegantly expressing the anguish and destructive nature of literary creation and the damage it can do if one’s life is subsumed by this interior world, it is equally assured in examining the cost of sacrifice; giving up one’s life for others.

Not surprisingly, with such rich material, Daldry appears to have had his pick of the cream of acting talent, drawing together an ensemble cast from both sides of the Atlantic. Miranda Richardson, Stephen Dillane, Alison Janey, Jeff Daniels and John C. Reilly all offer fine support. Julianne Moore is excellent as the housewife suffocated by her family’s dependence on her for emotional support. Similarly impressive is Kidman’s Virginia Woolf, which has won widespread acclaim and now an Oscar nomination. Undertstated, accentuating Woolf’s fragile persona, she is a ghostly presence throughout the film. However, it is the relationship Streep’s editor and her dying former lover which gives the film its emotional core. Streep excels in her best role in years (although I have yet to see her Oscar nominated turn in Adaptation), while Ed Harris has rarely been better. His appearance emaciated, and venting his rage against the world, Harris gives one of his most complex performances. In their scenes together, Streep and Harris draw the film’s themes together. Both personal and literary – in this case, Clarissa’s personal life – sacrifices are at issue. The relationship between Virginia and Leonard Woolf touches on similar themes, but here, Hare’s writing lacks the force of emotion.

There are a few weaknesses. Philip Glass’ score is occasionally overwrought, or present when silence would have been more effective. And Hare’s script sometimes feels overly schematic, or fails to fully develop characters. Clarissa’s daughter in particular could have played a more effective role. However, in light of the film’s achievements, such criticisms are minor. After the overrated Billy Elliot (2000), Daldry has made a film that is profoundly moving and honest in its attempts to mine the morass of human emotions. That the film succeeds is the result of a collaborative effort, but one which Daldry has orchestrated with great skill and panache.