Friday February 20, 1998
Even if you've had this feeling about Vanessa Redgrave long before seeing her in director Marleen Gorris and adapter Eileen Atkins' vaultingly ambitious though somewhat flawed film of Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," this experience will confirm it absolutely.
Elegantly gowned in a flowing pale green outfit and a hat with a flourish of yellow feathers, Redgrave's tall, stately Clarissa Dalloway is strolling through London's Bond Street on a sunny day in June 1923 when we meet her. Smiling a secret smile, she is pure enchantment, yet on this perfect day this perfect-looking woman is asking herself if her life is, for all intents and purposes, over.
She has been seriously rattled by the sight of a young World War I veteran (Rupert Graves) who finds himself coming mentally unhinged right there in the street. It is an encounter that propels her into memories of the summer of 1890, the turning point of her life.
In flashbacks we discover the young Clarissa (Natascha McElhone) immersed in the leisurely existence of an aristocrat living at her family's vast country estate. She's caught up in an innocent flirtation with her best friend Sally (Lena Headey) and is ardently pursued by the good-looking Peter Walsh (Alan Cox) who wants to whisk her off to a life of adventure. But Clarissa senses that Peter's kind of life is dangerous and that he asks too much of her. Poor Peter, desperately in love with her, realizes swiftly that for a husband she will choose the steadfast Richard Dalloway.
On this day more than 30 years later, which will unfold with a Aristotelian appreciation for dramatic unity, Clarissa is selecting flowers for the grand party she will be giving that evening in her splendid townhouse. In time we discover that Mr. Dalloway (John Standing) is a member of Parliament, that the prime minister himself will be in attendance, not to mention the duke and duchess of Marlborough. But no sooner has Clarissa arrived home than she receives an unexpected visitor--one she finds fitting, considering her state of mind. He is none other than Peter (Michael Kitchen), back from long years in India, enmeshed in a messy private life and still caring for her.
Along with moving back and forth in time within Clarissa's ruminations, "Mrs. Dalloway" also counterpoints her story with that of the unraveling young man, Graves' Septimus Warren Smith, who five years after the "Great War" is over, starts experiencing severe post-traumatic stress syndrome, reliving the witnessing of the death of his best friend. By the end of the day, his fate will impinge upon Mrs. Dalloway's conscience, even though they never meet, eliciting an epiphany in which she will make a crucial decision about life.
With her concern more for psychology than plot and penchant for interior monologues, Virginia Woolf represents a challenge for filmmakers, even though Woolf was intrigued and influenced by the new art form, the movies. Yet Gorris, whose "Antonia's Line" won a 1995 best foreign film Oscar, and actress-writer Atkins come to the task well-qualified.
Gorris is a venturesome storyteller in her own right with much skill in revealing the inner workings of the feminine psyche, and Atkins, co-creator of "Upstairs Downstairs," had already starred as Woolf in her own play, "Vita and Virginia," with Redgrave as Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Woolf's "Orlando."
They succeed in creating a reverie that will recall John Huston's film of James Joyce's "The Dead"--but then Joyce not only was Woolf's contemporary but also an exponent of stream-of-consciousness technique who took a similarly contemplative view of life as Woolf.
Gorris and Atkins carry off the difficult task of bringing Woolf alive on the screen, but they stumble on the prosaic business of matching actors playing the same character in youth and middle age. There's very little resemblance between Redgrave and McElhone--or for that matter, any of the actors playing the same character at different points in their lives--and this proves to be a serious distraction and even a source of initial confusion, requiring a real effort on the part of the viewer to suspend disbelief.
But for all its interior monologues and expressions of tormented imaginings, "Mrs. Dalloway" is otherwise a traditional screen narrative and not the kind of stylized venture in which close physical resemblance is not so crucial.
Even so, "Mrs. Dalloway" is a rich work, an insightful consideration of the nature of civilization in the wake of "the war to end all wars." And Redgrave is so transcendent--others are good but she soars--that you recommend the film anyway.
It's hard to watch "Mrs. Dalloway" without thinking of the impact of both world wars upon Virginia Woolf and how when the crucial moment arrived for Woolf herself she made a drastically different choice from that of her heroine.
Exquisitely crafted, "Mrs. Dalloway" leaves you with a sense of irony, intended or otherwise. The adventure Peter held forth in youth really boiled down to some posting in India. Would not Clarissa have found colonial society a mite stifling and just possibly more fatuous and myopic than the London high society she presides over with such skill and wry, even scathing, detachment?
Mrs. Dalloway, 1998. PG-13, for emotional elements, and for brief nudity. A First Look Pictures presentation. Director Marleen Gorris. Producers Stephen Bayly, Lisa Katselas Pare. Screenplay by Eileen Atkins. Cinematographer Sue Gibson. Editor Michiel Reichwein. Costumes Judy Pepperdine. Music Ilona Sekacz. Production designer David Richens. Art directors Alison Wratten, Nik Callan. Set decorators Carlotta Barrow, Jeanne Vertigan. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes. Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs. Dalloway. Natascha McElhone as Young Clarissa. Septimus Warren Smith as Rupert Graves. Peter Walsh as Michael Kitchen.