AFI Catalog of Feature Films
Summary View of Movie
Name Occurs Before Title Offscreen Credit Print Viewed By AFI
The Hours
Director: Stephen Daldry (Dir)
Release Date:   27 Dec 2002
Duration (in mins):  110-111 or 114-115
Print this page
Display Movie Detail

Cast: Nicole Kidman  (Virginia Woolf)
  Julianne Moore  (Laura Brown)
  Meryl Streep  (Clarissa Vaughan)

Summary: In 1941 Sussex, England, after author Virginia Woolf writes notes to her husband Leonard and sister Vanessa, she walks to a nearby river, places a heavy stone in her coat pocket, then wades into the river and drowns herself. As housewife Laura Brown awakens in 1951 Los Angeles, her husband Dan is preparing breakfast while Laura lingers in bed and begins reading a new book, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. In 2001 New York City, Sally Lester returns home early in the morning and slips into bed with her partner, book editor Clarissa Vaughan. Clarissa is awake but says nothing and shortly afterward rises, for that evening she is throwing an elaborate party for her best friend, Richard. In 1923 Richmond, England, Virginia joins Leonard in their dining room, but evades his concerned inquiries over whether she has eaten and instead reveals that she believes she has an opening line for a new book. Fearful that the demands of working might unsettle Virginia, who has long suffered from severe depression, Leonard nevertheless approves of her spending the day writing as long as she promises to eat lunch. Virginia retires to her study where she writes the opening line of a book revolving around a single day in the life of character Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party. Laura, who is five months pregnant, reluctantly leaves her book to join Dan and their son Richie for breakfast and is chagrined to see that Dan has bought her flowers even though it is his birthday. After Dan departs for work, Laura tells Richie that she intends to spend the morning baking Dan a birthday cake. Clarissa begins preparations for her party, stopping at a flower shop run by her friend Barbara who asks after Richard. Clarissa explains that the party is in honor of Richard receiving a prestigious literary prize for his poetry. Barbara mentions having read Richard’s single novel, a lengthy and difficult tome that clearly features Clarissa, then asks if it is purely fiction. Clarissa admits that the book has connections to true events, but Richard has made them his own. After selecting flowers for the party, Clarissa takes a bouquet to Richard’s warehouse loft apartment. Richard, who is debilitated by AIDS, welcomes Clarissa, affectionately calling her by his long-used nickname for her, “Mrs. Dalloway.” When Clarissa fusses over whether Richard has eaten breakfast, he abruptly explodes into anger about the literary award, suspicious that he is being honored out of pity. Clarissa makes light of the ceremony, but Richard chides her for constantly throwing parties to cover the emptiness in her own life. Richard confesses to feeling that he has failed as a writer to capture the essence of life. He then reminds Clarissa of a time long ago when they were young and shared a kiss on a beach and asks her what she wanted of life. He asks if she would be angry if he died and presses to know for whom she is really throwing the party, concluding that he has remained alive this long only to satisfy her. Annoyed, Clarissa insists that people must remain alive for one another, but Richard reveals he has no wish to continue living in a continual state of dependence and warns her that once he has died, Clarissa must face her own life. Virginia is annoyed by an interruption from Nelly Boxall, the cook, who has come at Leonard’s behest to inquire about lunch. When Virginia later reminds Nelly that her sister Vanessa and her three children will be coming to tea and states that she wishes the children to have ginger, Nelly protests that she will have to go to London to buy some. As a vexed Nelly departs, Virginia observes that it would be delightful to make a trip to London. As Laura gathers the cake ingredients, Richie, sensing his mother is inexplicably deeply distracted, assures her that baking a cake is not very difficult. Laura agrees and with forced brightness tells her son that she is making the cake to show Dan that she loves him. After the cake is completed, Laura is considering its lopsided sloppiness with disappointment when she is interrupted by a visit from her friend Kitty Barlow. Kitty laughs at Laura’s ineptness in the kitchen and Laura admires Kitty’s ease with people and her healthy marriage. As the women sip coffee, Laura observes that war veterans like their husbands deserve the security and happiness of a stable home. Noting Kitty’s increasing unease, Laura prompts her to confide that she is checking into the hospital that afternoon for surgery because a growth has been discovered on her uterus. After Kitty confesses her fear of the surgery and its implications, Laura comforts her and, embracing her, kisses her on the lips. Kitty thanks Laura for her sweetness and departs. Unsettled, Laura is annoyed to find Richie staring at her, then goes into the kitchen, where she throws away the cake. When Vanessa and the children arrive an hour and a half early, Virginia anxiously goes out to welcome them. Later, the children find an injured bird and Vanessa tells them the creature is near death and must be allowed to die. The children decide to give the bird a funeral, but when the boys grow restless, Vanessa romps with them while Virginia accompanies her niece in a ceremony, laying flowers around the tiny bird's body. Laura lies in bed deeply depressed, then abruptly rises to tell Richie that they will make another, better cake, then afterward take a drive. As Clarissa’s party preparations grow more frenzied, she is interrupted by the unexpected early arrival of Richard’s ex-boyfriend, college professor Louis Waters, who has flown in from California. After Clarissa warns Louis that Richard has been much altered by the disease, Louis reveals he has read Richard’s novel. Clarissa agrees that the book is difficult, but defends it and his decision to kill off the mother figure abruptly. When Louis admits he returned to visit the summer house in which he, Richard and she once lived, Clarissa admires his courage in facing the past. Louis is startled when Clarissa then collapses into tears and struggles to convey her sense of doom and feelings of being stuck in the past. In an effort to comfort Clarissa, Louis acknowledges that he only felt free once he broke up with Richard. After Laura finishes baking a second cake, she leaves the reluctant and crying Richie with his baby sitter, then checks into a hotel room. Sitting on the bed, Laura, contemplating suicide, lays a number of pill bottles on the bedspread, then reads more of Mrs. Dalloway . A little later, Laura considers her unborn child and in a moment of desperate struggle, realizes that she cannot kill herself. While Vanessa and the children chatter over tea, Virginia decides not to have Mrs. Dalloway die in her book. Vanessa chides her sister’s absentminded behavior then prepares to leave with the children. Suddenly saddened and envious of Vanessa’s active London life, Virginia hugs her sister and kisses her fiercely on the mouth, and guiltily, Vanessa bids her sister farewell. After Louis departs, Clarissa’s daughter, nineteen-year-old Julia, arrives to help with the party and is disconcerted when Clarissa admits that only when she is with Richard does she feel alive. Clarissa then describes how years earlier, while spending a day at the beach with Richard, she experienced true happiness and was certain the moment signified the beginning of a lifetime of happiness. She says she has since realized that that moment was the high point of her life. Virginia surreptitiously slips out of the house, avoiding Leonard in the garden. When Leonard learns from Nelly that Virginia has departed, he races off, alarmed, to the village. Finding Virginia at the train station, Leonard demands that she return home, but Virginia refuses, adamantly declaring her sense of imprisonment in Richmond. When Virginia decries languishing in the country when she longs for the clamor of London, Leonard reminds her of her long history of mental illness, of her two previous suicide attempts and admits that he fears her illness will return. Virginia maintains that it is her right to live as she chooses and acknowledges that she too lives with the specter of her own death. When she emotionally declares that given a choice between Richmond or death, she chooses death, Leonard agrees to move back to London. Laura picks Richie up and is uneasy as her young son appears to understand her unspoken intentions at the hotel. Richard looks at a wedding picture of his mother, Laura, recalling that day long ago when she retrieved him from the babysitter's home. Clarissa returns to Richard’s place earlier than planned and finds him in a heightened state of anxiety, pulling the shades off all of his windows. When Richard states that he cannot make her party, Clarissa grows panicked and assures him that he is not expected to receive the award or come to the party. Richard points out that after the event there would still be the empty hours of life to face. Desperate, Clarissa insists that he still has good moments ahead, but after recalling their past happiness, Richard thanks her for her love and throws himself out the window. At dinner, Dan thanks Laura for a perfect day and, as she listens uneasily, tells Richie how thoughts of Laura got him through his days as a soldier in the South Pacific. After dinner, Leonard asks Virginia why someone must die in her new book and she responds it is so that others may value life more and announces that the visionary poet will be the character to die. As Dan waits in bed, Laura sits in the bathroom, struggling to compose herself. Dan mentions learning about Kitty’s operation from her husband and Laura confesses her concern, then forces herself to go out to her husband. At the apartment, Sally and Julia help Clarissa clear away the party food when an elderly Laura arrives at the door, after having been informed of Richard’s death by Clarissa. Laura tells Clarissa how difficult it is to outlive one’s children, then admits she read her son’s book and was hurt that he killed her character, although she understands why. When Clarissa points out that Laura abandoned Richard when he was a child, Laura explains how years ago she made a decision after the birth of her second child that she would leave her family and has never regretted it. She describes her life as a housewife and mother as death and asserts that she chose life. Moments later, Clarissa retires and is joined by Sally, who comforts her, and the women kiss. Virginia writes to Leonard about the beauty of facing life, loving it and knowing when to put it away, and thanks Leonard for all the hours of their mutual love. 

Distribution Company: Paramount Pictures Corp.
Production Company: Miramax Film Corp.
Director: Stephen Daldry (Dir)
  Nick Heckstall-Smith (1st asst dir)
  Martin Harrison (1st asst dir)
  Stephen Lee Davis (1st asst dir, U.S. unit)
  George Walker (2d asst dir)
  Jennifer Truelove (2d asst dir, U.S. unit)
  Kellie Jo Tackett (2d asst dir, U.S. unit)
  Ken Bates (2d unit dir, U.S. unit)
  Ben Howard (3rd asst dir)
  Peggy Jean Robinson (2d 2d asst dir, U.S. unit)
Producer: Scott Rudin (Prod)
  Robert Fox (Prod)
  Mark Huffam (Exec prod)
  Marieke Spencer (Assoc prod)
  Ian MacNeil (Assoc prod)
Writer: David Hare (Scr)

Subject Major: Authors
  Depression, Mental
  Virginia Woolf
Subject Minor: AIDS (Disease)
  Family relationships
  Los Angeles (CA)
  Mothers and daughters
  Mothers and sons
  New York City
  Train stations

Display Movie Detail
The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
Limited To:
Video Availability
Advanced Search
Join AFI
Support our efforts to preserve hisotory of film
Help AFI Preserve Film History

© 2017 American Film Institute.
All rights reserved.
Terms of use.