In ''The Hours'' Nicole Kidman tunnels like a ferret into the soul of a woman besieged by excruciating bouts of mental illness. As you watch her wrestle with the demon of depression, it is as if its torment has never been shown on the screen before. Directing her desperate, furious stare into the void, her eyes not really focusing, Ms. Kidman, in a performance of astounding bravery, evokes the savage inner war waged by a brilliant mind against a system of faulty wiring that transmits a searing, crazy static into her brain.
But since that woman is the English writer Virginia Woolf (a prosthetic nose helps Ms. Kidman achieve an uncanny physical resemblance), her struggle is a losing battle. On March 28, 1941, Woolf, hounded by inner voices while in the throes of her fourth breakdown, put a stone in her pocket and drowned herself in the Ouse River near the English country house she shared with her husband, Leonard. And in the opening scene of ''The Hours,'' the eloquent, somber screen adaptation of Michael Cunningham's meditation on that suicide (it won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for fiction), Woolf scrawls an anguished farewell letter to her husband, then hurries into the muddy water like Joan of Arc embracing the fire, accompanied by the churning, ethereal strains of Philip Glass's score.
The deeply moving film, directed by Stephen Daldry (''Billy Elliot'') from a screenplay by David Hare that cuts to the bone, is an amazingly faithful screen adaptation of a novel that would seem an unlikely candidate for a movie. A delicate, layered reflection that skips around through time, ''The Hours,'' which opens today in New York, is Mr. Cunningham's homage to Woolf's first great novel, ''Mrs. Dalloway,'' published in 1925.
Woolf's novel details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a conventional upper-class Englishwoman giving a party, who experiences nagging intimations of the more adventurous life she might have led. On the same day, Septimus Warren Smith, a character in the novel whom she never meets but with whom she shares some of the same observations, commits suicide. Five years ago ''Mrs. Dalloway'' was adapted into a shallow, unsatisfying film starring Vanessa Redgrave. In accomplishing the virtually impossible feat of bringing to the screen that novel's introspective essence, the director and the screenwriter of ''The Hours'' have righted a wrong, albeit by proxy, through Mr. Cunningham's intuitive channeling.