The body of the film skips back and forth among three timelines.
In 1923, Woolf is forced by physicians and her husband (Stephen Dillane) to live away from the center of London in a dreary suburb after two suicide attempts. The author resents her isolation, and tells her spouse that peace is not found by being shielded from the world at large. Virginia expresses her frustration by writing a book, "Mrs. Dalloway", in which the protagonist, while preparing for a dinner party, is confronted by events that raise into consciousness the shallowness and inadequacies of her life.
In 1951, Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), living in a Los Angeles middle-class housing tract with loving husband Dan (John C. Reilly) and young son, is reading "Mrs. Dalloway". Contemplating her lack of fulfillment in the roles of wife and mother, Laura bakes her husband's birthday cake, plans his party, and considers suicide.
In 2001 New York, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) lives with her same-sex partner, while at the same time caring for ex-husband Richard (Ed Harris), who's dying of AIDS in a dark and cluttered flat. Richard is an award-winning poet, and Clarissa (nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway" by her Richard) is planning a dinner party in honor of his accomplishments.
THE HOURS is a complex film, the heroines of its three subplots all linked by the threads of self-destruction, "Mrs. Dalloway", and the extreme emotional and psychological dissatisfaction each feels in the relationship with the man in her life. Clarissa is already in a lesbian liaison, and there are strong hints that the other two would welcome such. The performances of the four principle actors (Kidman, Moore, Streep, and Harris) are all of Oscar caliber.
There are perhaps as many messages to be gotten from THE HOURS as there are people who will view it. I perceived the velvet chains that bind two people in a relationship. ("That's what we do. We stay alive for one another". - Clarissa) Chains that may drive one to an exit of desperation if there's an absence of love, or the feeling of one's own self being smothered and not having a little patch of ground to call one's own. And the guilt we feel when those chains are broken, if even to the long-term advantage of self.
This is a splendid and brilliantly conceived film that deserves all the honors it will reap. The connection between the 1951 and 2001 timelines was cleverly done. But, for me, THE HOURS had one great flaw. It failed to establish any emotional attachment between the main characters and myself. Virginia was too sour, Laura too distant, and Clarissa too self-absorbed. I left the theater admiring the movie for its artistry more than I was moved by it.