The plot focuses on three women of different generations whose lives are interconnected by the novel Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. These are Clarissa Vaughan (Streep), a New Yorker preparing an award party for her AIDS-stricken long-time friend and poet, Richard (Harris) in 2001; Laura Brown (Moore), a pregnant 1950s California housewife with a young boy and an unhappy marriage; and Virginia Woolf (Kidman) herself in 1920s England, who is struggling with depression and mental illness while trying to write her novel.
The film was released in Los Angeles and New York City on Christmas Day 2002, and was given a limited release in the United States and Canada two days later on December 27, 2002. It did not receive a wide release in North America until January 2003, and was then released in British cinemas on Valentine's Day that year. Critical reaction to the film was mostly positive, with nine Academy Award nominations for The Hours including Best Picture, and a win for Nicole Kidman as Best Actress.
With the exception of the opening and final scenes, which depict the 1941 suicide by drowning of Virginia Woolf in the River Ouse, the action takes place within the span of a single day in three different years and alternates between them throughout the film. In 1923, Virginia has begun writing the book Mrs Dalloway in her home in the town of Richmond outside London. In 1951, troubled Los Angeles housewife Laura Brown escapes from her conventional life by reading Mrs Dalloway. In 2001, New Yorker Clarissa Vaughan is the embodiment of the novel's title character, as she spends the day preparing for a party she is hosting in honor of her former lover and friend Richard, a poet and author living with AIDS who is to receive a major literary award. Richard tells Clarissa he has stayed alive for her sake, and the award is meaningless because he didn't get it sooner, until he was on the brink of death. She tells him she believes he would have won the award regardless of his illness. Richard often refers to Clarissa as "Mrs. Dalloway" - her namesake - because she distracts herself from her own life the way the Woolf character does.
Virginia, who has experienced several nervous breakdowns and suffers from bipolar disorder, feels trapped in her home. She is intimidated by servants and constantly under the eye of her husband, Leonard, who has begun a publishing business, Hogarth Press, at home to stay close to her. Virginia both welcomes and dreads an afternoon visit from her sister Vanessa and her children. After their departure, Virginia flees to the railway station, where she is awaiting a train to central London, when Leonard arrives to bring her home. He tells her how he lives in constant fear that she will take her own life. She says she fears it also but argues that if she is to live, she has the right to decide how and where.
Pregnant with her second child, Laura spends her days in her tract home with her young son, Richie. She married her husband, Dan, soon after World War II. On the surface they are living the American Dream, but she is nonetheless deeply unhappy. She and Richie make a cake for Dan's birthday, but it is a disaster. Her neighbor Kitty drops in to ask her if she can feed her dog while she's in the hospital for a procedure. Kitty reveals that the procedure is related to the fact that she has been unable to conceive, and may portend permanent infertility, and that she really feels that a woman is not complete until she is a mother. Kitty pretends to be upbeat, but Laura senses her sadness and fear and boldly kisses her on the lips; Kitty laughs it off as if it didn't happen. Laura and Richie successfully make another cake and clean up, and then she takes Richie to stay with Mrs. Latch. Richie runs after his mother as she leaves, fearing that she will never come back. Laura checks into a hotel, where she intends to commit suicide. Laura removes several bottles of pills and Mrs. Dalloway from her purse and begins to read it. She drifts off to sleep and dreams the hotel room is flooded. She awakens with a change of heart and caresses her belly. She picks up Richie, and they return home to celebrate Dan's birthday.
Clarissa appears equally worried about Richard's depression and the party she is planning for him. Clarissa, who is bisexual and has been living with Sally Lester for 10 years, had been in a relationship with Richard during their college days. She meets with Richard's ex-lover Louis Waters, who has returned for the festivities. Clarissa's daughter, Julia, comes home to help her prepare. Richard has taken a combination of Xanax and Ritalin and tells Clarissa she is the most beautiful thing he ever had in life, before he commits suicide in front of her. Later that night, Richard's mother, Laura (the same character from the middle story), arrives at Clarissa's apartment. It is clear that Laura's abandonment of her family was deeply traumatic for Richard, but Laura reveals it was a better decision for her to leave the family after the birth of her daughter than to commit suicide. She has led an independent, happier life as a librarian in Canada. She does not apologize for the hurt she caused to her family (Dan and their daughter are also both dead) and suggests that it's not possible to feel regret for something over which she had no choice. She acknowledges that no one will forgive her, but she offers an explanation: "It [her life] was death. I chose life." When Julia visits Laura in her bedroom, she treats her with kindness and sensitivity that Laura does not expect to receive.
The film ends with a voice-over in which Virginia thanks Leonard for loving her: "Always the years between us. Always the years. Always the love. Always the hours."1923
Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf
Stephen Dillane as Leonard Woolf
Miranda Richardson as Vanessa Bell
Lyndsey Marshal as Lottie Hope
Linda Bassett as Nelly Boxall
Julianne Moore as Laura Brown
John C. Reilly as Dan Brown
Jack Rovello as Richard "Richie" Brown
Toni Collette as Kitty
Margo Martindale as Mrs. Latch
Meryl Streep as Clarissa Vaughan
Ed Harris as Richard "Richie" Brown
Allison Janney as Sally Lester
Claire Danes as Julia Vaughan
Jeff Daniels as Louis Waters
Julianne Moore as Older Laura Brown
The Hours has an 81% "fresh" rating on the film review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, with 150 of 186 counted reviews giving it a positive review and an average rating of 7.4 out of 10 — with the consensus that "the movie may be a downer, but it packs an emotional wallop. Some fine acting on display here." On Metacritic, the film holds an average score of 81 out of 100, based on 39 reviews. The four main cast members were praised, especially Nicole Kidman who won numerous awards for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf including the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Stephen Holden of The New York Times called the film "deeply moving" and "an amazingly faithful screen adaptation" and added, "Although suicide eventually tempts three of the film's characters, The Hours is not an unduly morbid film. Clear eyed and austerely balanced would be a more accurate description, along with magnificently written and acted. Mr. Glass's surging minimalist score, with its air of cosmic abstraction, serves as ideal connective tissue for a film that breaks down temporal barriers."
Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle observed, "Director Stephen Daldry employs the wonderful things cinema can do in order to realize aspects of The Hours that Cunningham could only hint at or approximate on the page. The result is something rare, especially considering how fine the novel is, a film that's fuller and deeper than the book ... It's marvelous to watch the ways in which [David Hare] consistently dramatizes the original material without compromising its integrity or distorting its intent ... Cunningham's [novel] touched on notes of longing, middle-aged angst and the sense of being a small consciousness in the midst of a grand mystery. But Daldry and Hare's [film] sounds those notes and sends audiences out reverberating with them, exalted."
Richard Schickel of Time criticized its simplistic characterization, saying, "Watching The Hours, one finds oneself focusing excessively on the unfortunate prosthetic nose Kidman affects in order to look more like the novelist. And wondering why the screenwriter, David Hare, and the director, Stephen Daldry, turn Woolf, a woman of incisive mind, into a hapless ditherer." He also criticized its overt politicization: "But this movie is in love with female victimization. Moore's Laura is trapped in the suburban flatlands of the '50s, while Streep's Clarissa is moored in a hopeless love for Laura's homosexual son (Ed Harris, in a truly ugly performance), an AIDS sufferer whose relentless anger is directly traceable to Mom's long-ago desertion of him. Somehow, despite the complexity of the film's structure, this all seems too simple-minded. Or should we perhaps say agenda driven? The same criticisms might apply to the fact that both these fictional characters (and, it is hinted, Woolf herself) find what consolation they can in a rather dispassionate lesbianism. This ultimately proves insufficient to lend meaning to their lives or profundity to a grim and uninvolved film, for which Philip Glass unwittingly provides the perfect score — tuneless, oppressive, droning, painfully self-important."
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone awarded the film, which he thought "sometimes stumbles on literary pretensions," three out of four stars. He praised the performances, commenting, "Kidman's acting is superlative, full of passion and feeling ... Moore is wrenching in her scenes with Laura's son (Jack Rovello, an exceptional child actor). And Streep is a miracle worker, building a character in the space between words and worlds. These three unimprovable actresses make The Hours a thing of beauty."
Steve Persall of the St. Petersburg Times said it "is the most finely crafted film of the past year that I never want to sit through again. The performances are flawless, the screenplay is intelligently crafted, and the overall mood is relentlessly bleak. It is a film to be admired, not embraced, and certainly not to be enjoyed for any reason other than its expertise ... Glacially paced and somberly presented, The Hours demands that viewers be as impressed with the production as the filmmakers are with themselves ... Whatever the reason - too gloomy, too slow, too slanted - [it] is too highbrow and admirably dull for most moviegoers. It's the kind of film that makes critics feel smarter by recommending it, even at the risk of damaging credibility with mainstream audiences who automatically think any movie starring Kidman, Streep and Moore is worth viewing. The Hours will feel like days for them."
Philip French of The Observer called it "a moving, somewhat depressing film that demands and rewards attention." He thought "the performances are remarkable" but found the Philip Glass score to be "relentless" and "over-amplified."
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian rated the film three out of five stars and commented, "It is a daring act of extrapolation, and a real departure from most movie-making, which can handle only one universe at a time . . . The performances that Daldry elicits . . . are all strong: tightly managed, smoothly and dashingly juxtaposed under a plangent score. I have to confess I am agnostic about Nicole Kidman, who as Woolf murmurs her lines through an absurd prosthetic nose. It's almost a Hollywood Disability. You've heard of Daniel Day-Lewis and My Left Foot. This is Nicole and her Big Fake Schnoz. It doesn't look anything like the real Virginia's sharp, fastidious features . . . Julianne Moore gives [a] superbly controlled, humane performance . . . Streep's performance is probably the most fully realised of the three: a return to the kind of mature and demanding role on which she had a freehold in yesterday's Hollywood . . . Part of the bracing experimental impact of the film was the absence of narrative connection between the three women. Supplying one in the final reel undermines its formal daring, but certainly packs an emotional punch. It makes for an elegant and poignant chamber music of the soul."
The Hours opened in New York City and Los Angeles on Christmas Day 2002 and went into limited release in the United States and Canada two days later. It grossed $1,070,856 on eleven screens in its first two weeks of release. On January 10, 2003, it expanded to 45 screens, and the following week it expanded to 402. On February 14 it went into wide release, playing in 1,003 theaters in the US and Canada. With an estimated budget of $25 million, the film eventually earned $41,675,994 in the US and Canada and $67,170,078 in foreign markets for a total worldwide box office of $108,846,072. It was the 47th highest-grossing film of 2002.
The film's score by Philip Glass won the BAFTA Award for Best Film Music and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score and the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score. The soundtrack album was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media.