With the exception of the opening and final scenes, which depict the 1941 suicide by drowning of Virginia Woolf in the River Ouse, the film takes place within the span of a single day in three different decades and alternates between them following three women: Virginia Woolf in 1923, Laura Brown in 1951, and Clarissa Vaughan in 2001. The following plot summary has been simplified and is in chronological order, not the order as presented in the film.
Virginia Woolf has begun writing the book Mrs Dalloway in her home in the town of Richmond outside London. Virginia has experienced several nervous breakdowns and suffers from depression. She is constantly under the eye of her servants and her husband, Leonard, who has begun a publishing business at home, Hogarth Press, to stay close to her. Virginia’s sister, Vanessa, and her children, Julian, Quentin, and Angelica, come over for an afternoon visit. She and Virginia talk about Vanessa’s life in London and Virginia’s mental condition. She longs for a life similar to Vanessa, living in London. Vanessa’s children find a dead bird. Virginia and Angelica make a funeral for the bird. Virginia lies down beside the bird and looks into its eyes. She sees herself in the dead bird, suffering and dying in her circumstances. Everyone goes back inside and Virginia continues writing her book. She says that she was going to kill her heroine but instead chooses to kill another character in the book. Before Vanessa leaves, Virginia passionately kisses her sister. It is clear Virginia wants them to stay and wants her sister’s life. After their departure, Virginia flees to the train station, where she is awaiting a train to London. 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, stressing that she has the right to decide how her mental condition is treated and wanting to move back to London. Virginia returns home and begins writing again. Leonard questions her as to why someone has to die. Virginia says “In order that the rest of us should value life more.” Leonard asks who will die and Virginia says “The poet will die, the visionary.”
Pregnant with her second child, Laura Brown spends her days in her tract home in Los Angeles with her young son, Richie, and escapes from her conventional life by reading Mrs Dalloway. 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 acts as if it didn’t happen. Laura and Richie successfully make another cake and clean up, and then she takes Richie to stay with a babysitter, 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, who fearfully tells his mother he loves her, and they return home to celebrate Dan’s birthday.
New Yorker Clarissa Vaughan is the embodiment of the novel’s title character. 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. Clarissa, who is bisexual and has been living with Sally Lester for 10 years, was in a relationship with Richard during their college years. 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. Clarissa visits Richard and he tells Clarissa that he has stayed alive for her sake and that the award is meaningless because he didn’t get it sooner, until he was on the brink of death. She tries reassuring him. Richard often refers to Clarissa as “Mrs. Dalloway” – her namesake – because she distracts herself from her own life the way that the Woolf character does. Richard tells Clarissa that she is the most beautiful thing that he ever had in life, before he commits suicide in front of her. Later that night, Richard’s mother, Laura Brown, arrives at Clarissa’s apartment. Laura is aware that her abandonment of her family was deeply traumatic for Richard, but Laura reveals that it was a better decision for her to leave the family after the birth of her daughter than to commit suicide. She does not apologize for the hurt that she caused to her family 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 was death. I chose life.”
The film ends with Virginia’s suicide by drowning 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.”