Mrs. Dalloway: Marleen Gorris Adaptation of Virginia Woolf Novel, Starring Vanessa Redgrave

Whatever reservations literary and film critics may have about Marleen Gorris’s 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 situation, reflects upon her life. A highly romantic, deeply melancholy drama, Mrs. Dalloway 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 avid supporters of literary adaptations and costumers, with extra bonus for the growing circle of Woolf’s fans.

In the end credits, Gorris thanks Ismail Merchant and James Ivory and, indeed, visually, the film approximates the smooth, cautious and genteel style used by the veteran team in their literary cinema, lacking the roughness and audacity of Orlando, Sally Potter’s version of another Woolf’s novel. Nonetheless, being a 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’ hardcore feminist expose, A Question of Silence, and to her Oscar-winning, Antonia’s Line, as 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 Gorris’ introduction of dozens of characters, and the constant shifts through flashbacks from present to past and back again. And 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 extensive preparations taken by Mrs. Dalloway 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 has made 30 years ago to engage in a safe, comfortable marriage to a successful, bourgeois politician.

Introspective shots reveal a young, vibrant woman (played by the exquisitely photogenic McElhone), romantically involved with Peter (Alan Cox), who wants to marry her, and intimately bonded with Sally (Lena Headey), a dynamic, outspoken woman. Helmer Gorris accentuates the physical intimacy between Clarissa Dalloway 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), an shell-shocked 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.

What makes Mrs. Dalloway an especially poignant film is the detailed attention that 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 whole saga builds toward the big event, Mrs. Dalloway’s party, which occupies the last reel and is nothing less than emotionally stunning. It’s here that Gorliss’s staging excels and Redgrave shines, as she greets her guests and her secret commentary about them. There’s 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, with whom she empathizes but never met. As in Orlando, Woolf put a lot of her own personality into a male character, here in the unstable Septimus. Woolf suggest that Mrs. Dalloway is seeing “the truth,” whereas Septimus is seeing “the insane truth.” In the end, it’s Mrs. Dalloway’s humanistic vision and reaffirmation of life that dominates and hovers over her doubts.

The versatile and still beautiful Redgrave renders the kind of performance than in theater circles is described as delicious. 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. Rest of the ensemble, which includes veterans of the British stage and television, is unanimously impressive.