Film Reviews

Women on the Brink

Though critics of her era often compared Virginia Woolf's nonlinear, almost cubist narratives to the then-burgeoning cinema's use of montage, close-ups, flashbacks, tracking shots and rapid cuts, the strength of Woolf's novels lies in the rhythm of her arresting style, and in her heroines' poignant and melancholic musings. While necessarily sacrificing Woolf's style, the film Mrs. Dalloway retains the meditative mood of that novel, for better or worse. The movie that results is a slow drama about women on the brink of modernity, but with little of the plot intrigues and machinations we've seen in the recent spate of Jane Austen adaptations.

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 wistful ruminations.

The action of Mrs. Dalloway takes place on a single day: June 13, 1923. The story presents two main characters -- the elegant society matron Clarissa Dalloway and the shell-shocked war veteran Septimus Warren Smith -- in markedly different positions vis-a-vis the English class system following World War I. On the day of one of her legendary parties, an aging Clarissa reflects on the choices she has made in life -- particularly her marriage to upstanding and dependable Richard Dalloway (John Standing) rather than her impassioned and adventurous friend and suitor Peter Walsh (Michael Kitchen), who unexpectedly returns to London that day after five years in India. Meanwhile, Septimus Smith (Rupert Graves) intermittently cowers in panic as he obsessively struggles to come to terms with a recurring wartime flashback. His loving Italian wife, Rezia, fights to spare him from the medical authorities, who intend to commit him to a "resting cure" at an institution in the country. Though the two never meet, Woolf interweaves the courses 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, burdened by confusing shifts from past to present and the introduction of the various characters. Still, it beautifully captures its 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 the end of Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway solidifies at its finale, the grand party as witnessed through Clarissa's internal monologue. When Sir William imparts the distressing news of a young man's suicide, Clarissa, overwhelmed, steps outside to ruefully contemplate the troubled young man she never met but with whom she empathizes. Redgrave delivers the soliloquy with breathtaking subtlety and power, the culmination of the masterful pacing with which she imbues Mrs. Dalloway's conflicted emotions with increasing resolution and heart.

Mrs. Dalloway.
Rated PG-13.
Directed by Marleen Gorris. With Vanessa Redgrave, Natascha McElhone and Rupert Graves.