Women on the Brink

Though critics often compared Virginia Woolf's nonlinear, almost Cubist narratives to the then burgeoning cinema's use of montage, closeups, 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, which insidiously seep 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 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, cocreator of the television series Upstairs, Downstairs, adapted the novel for the screen, and the venerable actress Vanessa Redgrave perfectly conveys the aging Clarissa Dalloway's wistful ruminations.

The action of 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 after 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 decent and dependable Richard Dalloway (John Standing) rather than to 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) 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 medical authorities who intend to commit him for a "resting cure" at an institution in the country. Though Clarissa and Septimus 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 at a slow pace, somewhat burdened by confusing shifts from past to present and by the introduction of its various characters. Still, it beautifully captures that genteel era. Natascha McElhone radiates as the apprehensive young Clarissa. The second half builds toward Mrs. Dalloway's magnificent party. As does Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway solidifies at its finale: the grand party as portrayed through internal monologue. When she hears the distressing news of a young man's suicide, an overwhelmed Clarissa steps outside to ruefully contemplate the troubled young man whom she never met but with whom she empathizes. Redgrave delivers the soliloquy with breathtaking subtlety and power in the culmination of the masterful pacing with which she suggests Mrs. Dalloway's feelings. Her increasing resolution and heart slowly liquefy the character's stilted, freeze-dried emotions into a fully steeped, if delicate, broth.

Mrs. Dalloway.
Directed by Marleen Gorris. Written by Eileen Atkins, from the novel by Virginia Woolf. Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Natascha McElhone, and Rupert Graves.

 
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