Mrs. Dalloway
Director: Marleen Gorris. Cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Kitchen, Natascha McElhone, Rupert Graves, Alan Cox, Lena Headey, John Standing, Amelia Bullmore, Margaret Tyzack, Sarah Badel. Screenplay: Eileen Atkins (based on the novel by Virginia Woolf).

A friend of mine recently voiced her reluctance to see Mrs. Dalloway by confessing, "I'm not that interested in Vanessa Redgrave showing up again to say, 'Hey, look how ethereal I am!'" If that sentiment reflects your own to any major degree, then steering clear of Marleen Gorris' adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel is probably a good idea. Redgrave's screen-time, considering the movie is named after her character, comprises a surprisingly small proportion of Mrs. Dalloway's 97 minutes, but yes, when she is on screen, her beatific smile and often-heralded "radiance" are essential features of her performance. Also, don't come to Mrs. Dalloway if the sound of Redgrave speaking words like "humiliated" in what seems like 18 syllables will drive you batty.

Now, I do confess that I myself would listen to Redgrave say anything any time, long vowels or not, and I fully subscribe to the theory of her "radiance". Still, I do not think my established sympathies for her acting style are what made Mrs. Dalloway such an enjoyable experience for me. Certainly her one-of-a-kind blend of the magisterial and the delicate are perfectly suited to Clarissa Dalloway, whose persona is divided equally between her public stature as the wife of a Parliamentarian and her private, winsome sentimentality as she sieves through the memories of her upbringing, her background, and her choices.

I shouldn't short-change Redgrave's accomplishments by citing her simply as well-cast; she also contributes a remarkable performance, strongest in the lesser actor's minefield of voice-over narration and nicely modulated throughout to communicate Clarissa's evanescent moods and thoughts.

Moods and thoughts, in the classic Woolf tradition, are the closest thing to narrative substance in Mrs. Dalloway, which is essentially an attempt to render nostalgia as drama; think of the climax of James Joyce's The Dead played out over an entire day. Clarissa is planning to give a party for the British élite when we meet her, and she walks through the streets collecting flowers for the table, confirming the attendance of some invitees, and serenely enjoying the bright day to prepare and relax her for the rigors of hostessing.

Meanwhile, for reasons she cannot quite explain to herself, she feels a certain melancholy about the affairs ahead of her, and the place in life she has attained. "Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway," she thinks in voice-over, "I'm not even Clarissa any more. Only Mrs. Richard Dalloway, who tonight is to give a party."

Ironically, as she begins to remember scenes from her youth, her life when she was "Clarissa" doesn't seem any more emancipated than her current lot. Nor was the past without its own complications, mostly in the form of men. Peter Walsh (Alan Cox) dotes on the young Clarissa (Natascha McElhone of Surviving Picasso and The Devil's Own, looking here like Kate Winslet's older sister); she, however, is much more interested in reading, in coltishly running around her estate, and reveling in the giddy friendship and tender kisses of Sally Seton (The Remains of the Day's Lena Headey).

What attracts Peter to Clarissa? What is the nature of her friendship with Sally? These are questions on which the movie speculates but does not resolve. Rather we are invited to share in the jubilance of it all until the inevitable, emergent press of responsibility: Peter begins to pursue—adamantly—Clarissa's hand in marriage. She opts instead for the "safe" (read: uninteresting and encased-in-wealth) Richard Dalloway, and her destiny is set.

Clarissa's back-story is not played out chronologically or continuously, and the film's transitions between flashback and present-day are even more frequent and fragmentary than those in The English Patient. Interestingly, some of the transitions are made such that one could read them as the young Clarissa flashing forward to the rarefied life of privilege and party-giving that a marriage to Richard will surely entail.

Redgrave's expressive acting is just one ingredient in Gorris' worthy translation of Woolf's famously diffuse, non-linear prose to the screen. The cast in general does an excellent job of communicating their feelings through their expressions, so the impressionistic light in which Woolf always presents her characters may be reproduced in the film. Particularly moving is Michael Kitchen, who plays the older Peter Walsh on return from India just in time for the Dalloways' festivities. McElhone is a lovely choice to play Redgrave's youthful self, and she plays the character with enough naïveté that the older Clarissa's wisdom can only be interpreted as the product of many intervening years of experience. McElhone has not yet played a character with any real edge, but she continues to show promise if only she branches out in her roles.

You don't need to have read Mrs. Dalloway to enjoy or follow this film, but without some experience reading Woolf, Gorris' uses of flashbacks, montage, and sustained close-ups—all of which nicely duplicate the often free-associative style of the author—are likely to be mystifying and even off-putting. Gorris and cinematographer Sue Gibson also follow Woolf in taking time-outs to celebrate the waving tufts of a feathered hat, or the perfect smoothness of a mirror, the glimmer of flowers in water. These sorts of sensory delights animate Woolf's prose and give the whole film an authenticity of wealth and a visual fidelity to its source material.

Thankfully, the film does not condescend to Clarissa; yes, her greatest concern (at least for today) is the success of her evening of cocktails, and the class affinities that inform that perspective are no less ugly for being signature of Woolf's work. There is a substantial narrative thread around Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves, looking as Gerber-ish as ever), a traumatized World War I vet whose story ostensibly shakes Mrs. Dalloway briefly out of her rich lady's reverie and into a more serious contemplation of her cosmic situation. The fact that Graves overplays, and that the whole storyline is easily the film's weakest, do little to counterbalance the upper-class sympathies of the story as a whole. They also have the unfortunate consequence of cheapening Clarissa's epiphany, since the version of Septimus' story we get is too perfunctory and unconvincing to make the psychical impact Mrs. Dalloway seems to receive.

All in all, though, Gorris and screenwriter Eileen Atkins—a renowned actress and Woolf aficionada whose own work includes a self-penned stage performance of A Room of One's Own—work wonders in Mrs. Dalloway, which often attains the pure visual grace of silent movies. Atkins' dialogues are convincing but short and infrequent; the story, like Clarissa's is in the surfaces. Mrs. Dalloway affirms its own heroine by validating the world of surfaces as something more than mere "superficiality." The visual realm, together with the interior world of thought, is after all where most of life is lived, and Gorris' film recreates both types of experience with genuine insight and compassion. Between this picture and Sally Potter's entrancing 1993 Orlando, the highly unlikely genre of Woolf On Film is on quite a roll. Grade: B+

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