Film Reviews

Woolf Gang Pluck

Though her contemporaries often compared Virginia Woolf's nonlinear, almost cubist narratives to the cinema's then-burgeoning use of montage, close-ups, flashbacks, tracking shots and rapid cuts, the strength of Woolf's novels lay in the rhythm of her arresting style, and in her heroines' poignant melancholia, which insidiously seeps through the reader's emotional defenses. While necessarily sacrificing Woolf's style, the film Mrs. Dalloway retains the meditative mood of the novel, for better or worse. The movie that results is a slow drama about women on the brink of modernity.

An impressive array of talented women banded together to create Mrs. Dalloway. The director, Marleen Gorris, wrote and directed the earthy feminist pastoral Antonia's Line, a Dutch film that won the 1995 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Eileen Atkins, co-creator of the television series Upstairs, Downstairs, adapted the novel for the screen, and the venerable Vanessa Redgrave perfectly embodies the aging Clarissa Dalloway's wistfulness.

The action of Mrs. Dalloway is set on a single day, June 13, 1923. The story presents two main characters--the aging society matron Clarissa Dalloway and the shell-shocked war veteran Septimus Warren Smith--in markedly different positions within the English class system following World War I. On the day of one of her legendary parties, Clarissa reflects on the choices she has made in life--particularly her marriage to her proper and dependable husband (John Standing) rather than her impassioned and adventurous friend and suitor (Michael Kitchen), who unexpectedly returns to London that day after five years in India. Meanwhile, Septimus Smith (Rupert Graves) cowers in panic amid his obsessive struggles to come to terms with a recurring wartime flashback. His loving wife fights to spare him from the medical authorities, who plan to commit him to a "resting cure" at an institution in the country. Though the two never meet, Woolf interweaves the paths of their respective days, a juxtaposition she described as "the world seen by the sane and the insane, side by side. Mrs. Dalloway seeing the truth. Septimus Smith seeing the insane truth."

The first half of the movie lumbers, confusingly shifting from past to present while introducing its various characters. Still, it beautifully captures that genteel era, and Natascha McElhone radiates as the apprehensive young Clarissa. The second half of the movie builds toward Mrs. Dalloway's magnificent party. Like Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway jells at its finale, the grand party as witnessed through Clarissa's internal monologue. When she's told the news of a young man's death, Clarissa, overwhelmed, contemplates ruefully the troubled young man and empathizes with him. Redgrave delivers the final soliloquy with breathtaking subtlety and power. It is the culmination of a well-paced performance, in which she imbues Mrs. Dalloway's conflicted emotions with increasing resolution and heart as if slowly liquefying her stilted, freeze-dried emotions into a fully steeped, if delicate, broth.

Mrs. Dalloway
Directed by Marleen Gorris; with Vanessa Redgrave.