Whatever reservations literary and film critics may have about Marleen Gorris’ screen adaptation of “Mrs. Dalloway,” arguably Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, one thing is beyond doubt: Vanessa Redgrave’s towering performance in the title role. Perfectly cast, Redgrave portrays a middle-aged society lady, a “perfect hostess” who, thrown into a crisis, reflects upon her life. A highly romantic, deeply melancholy drama, the film offers psychological and existential insights about the inevitable effects — and price — of life choices. Well executed, and engaging for the most part, pic should appeal to supporters of literary adaptations and costumers, with the bonus of the growing circle of Woolf’s fans.
In the end credits, Gorris thanks Ismail Merchant and James Ivory; indeed, the film visually approximates the smooth, cautious and genteel style used by the veteran team in their literary cinema, and lacks the roughness and audacity of “Orlando,” Sally Potter’s version of another Woolf novel. Nonetheless, feminist director Gorris imbues the story with a modernist interpretation, bringing to the surface issues of sexual politics and sexual identity that were more latent in the book. In this respect, “Mrs. Dalloway” is directly linked to Gorris’ hard-core feminist expose, “A Question of Silence,” and to her Oscar-winning “Antonia’s Line.” All three films deal with the emergence of the modern woman.
The first reel is rather weak and less involving than the rest, a combined result of the introduction of dozens of characters and the constant shifts through flashbacks from present to past and back again. While the time transitions are gracefully engineered, the numerous cuts interfere with the flow of the story.
Set during the course of one fateful day in June 1923, tale begins with the Mrs. Dalloway’s extensive preparations for the “perfect” party she is hosting that night. Walking down Bond Street, she reflects upon her life, sharing with the audience her innermost thoughts and feelings. She is particularly troubled by the decision she made 30 years ago to engage in a safe, comfortable marriage to a successful, bourgeois politician.
Introspective shots reveal a young, vibrant Clarissa Dalloway (played by the exquisitely photogenic Natascha McElhone) romantically involved with Peter (Alan Cox), who wants to marry her, and intimately bonded with the dynamic, outspoken Sally (Lena Headey). Gorris accentuates the physical intimacy between Clarissa and Sally in a disturbing scene that leaves the former bewildered.
Mrs. Dalloway’s story, past and present, is intercut with that of Septimus (Rupert Graves, in a touching performance), a shellshocked vet of the Great War who’s diagnosed as “unstable” by the medical establishment. Married to an adoring Italian wife, who tries but can’t save him from his demons, he takes his life when his unfeeling doctor suggests putting him in an asylum. Gorris repeats a haunting image, one in which Septimus observes the death of a mate in combat, and is extremely perceptive in dealing with the primitive state of “scientific” knowledge concerning madness.
Indeed, what makes “Mrs. Dalloway” especially poignant is the detailed attention scenarist Eileen Atkins pays to the values, mores, biases and hypocrisies of urban British society in the 1920s. Observations on the ruthless class system, snobbery of the wealthy, discrimination against foreigners and minorities, and religious fanaticism are evident in almost each of the film’s priceless vignettes.
The saga builds toward the big party, which occupies the last reel and is nothing short of stunning. It’s here that Gorris’ staging excels and Redgrave shines, as Mrs. Dalloway greets her guests and engages in secret commentary about them. There is inevitable sadness in observing the older Sally, now Lady Rosseter (Sarah Badel), a tempestuous woman who vowed to lead a bohemian life but instead ended up an upper-middle-class housewife with five children.
The piece de resistance is the long, heartbreaking monologue that Redgrave delivers upon learning of the suicide of Septimus, whom she never met but with whom she empathizes. As in “Orlando,” Woolf put a lot of her own personality into a male character, here in the unstable Septimus. Woolf suggests that Mrs. Dalloway is seeing “the truth” whereas Septimus is seeing “the insane truth.” In the end, it is Mrs. Dalloway’s humanistic vision and reaffirmation of life that dominates and hovers over her doubts.
The versatile, luminously beautiful Redgrave renders the kind of performance that is often described as delicious in theater circles. With her richly musical and resonant voice, she conveys brilliantly Mrs. Dalloway’s changing emotions: from exultation to introspection, from deep confusion and irritation to emphatic reconciliation. Remainder of the ensemble, which includes veterans of the British stage and television, is universally impressive.