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Sign of the Woolf

[whitespace] Mrs. Dalloway
A Day in the Life: Vanessa Redgrave plays Mrs. Dalloway, an upper-class woman whose past comes back to haunt her memory in Marleen Gorris' adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel.

'Mrs. Dalloway' adaptation evokes muted admiration

By Richard von Busack

VIRGINIA WOOLF'S Mrs. Dalloway was a revolutionary novel about the stream-of-consciousness turbulence during one day in the life of a minor, sometimes dim woman. Director Marleen Gorris deserves some detached admiration for her willingness to adapt such a difficult book for the screen.

There has been no rearrangement of the text, at least nothing beyond strongly emphasizing the famous remembered kiss between the young Clarissa Dalloway and her friend Sally. Such is the integrity of Eileen Atkins' screenplay--so exotic, yet so organic--that it is possible to tell what Woolf was up to as a writer even without reading the novel.

Atkins has adapted Woolf for the stage in a one-woman show, A Room of One's Own, and in Vita and Virginia, in which she played the author opposite Vanessa Redgrave as Vita Sackville-West, Woolf's friend and lover. So Atkins and Redgrave (who plays Mrs. Dalloway in the movie) understand the material.

They know that Woolf was a writer as hard on herself as she was on others. Mrs. Dalloway is a woman dulled by her life with dull men, but this isn't just a soft feminist tragedy. Atkins makes it clear that Dalloway has also been dulled by her own hand.

What happens is very little. We take in the impressions of an upper-class London woman's day in the early 1920s, after a winter of illness and seclusion. She remembers (in flashbacks) her life throughout the day; that evening, at a party, she sees an old beau. The sight brings home with force the choices she made 30 years before.

There is also a peripheral story of a soldier's mortal bout with shell shock, which his wife's tenderness and concern can't cure. Septimus (Rupert Graves) is a symbol of the disorienting modern world that separates Clarissa's idyllic youth from her complicated, aching present.

Mrs. Dalloway represents the buttoned-in, abstracted woman who has learned to back away fearfully from her own opinions. Redgrave, however, is no self-diminisher; indeed, she's too big a woman for anything she's gotten on screen in years. (Oh, was Mrs. Dalloway a part made for Maggie Smith!) And the lack of care director Gorris took matching the scenes of Dalloway's past with Dalloway's present fractures the movie.

Natascha McElhone (Surviving Picasso), who plays Mrs. Dalloway as a young girl, is a broad-faced, Florentine-style beauty. There's hardly any visual similarity between Redgrave and McElhone. The actresses are so dissimilar that we can't see how this luscious young girl will end up as a thin, nervous middle-aged woman. The strongest link between "then" and "now" is indicated with two bunches of roses presented (at least) 30 years apart. Blink, and you miss it.

LYTTON STRACHEY, critiquing the novel, called it a work of genius, but a flawed stone. He said (according to Woolf's journal) that there was "a discordancy between the ornament and what happens." That is, the subject matter--the ordinary lives examined--wasn't worth the detail Woolf lavished on it.

It's a patronizing, snobbish view, but audiences might share it. Cinema audiences prefer heroic lives; they prefer action to inaction, something big enough to leave a shadow. Woolf, who once wrote "Writing is the profound pleasure and being read the superficial," pretty much explains why her work resists the filmmaker.

It takes a special talent to break through the glaze of Woolf, a writer who was so elusive. But Atkins has organized the material well; it's just that director Gorris has undone her subtlety with obviousness and clumsiness. Judging from her last film, Antonia's Line, Gorris is none too interested in men. This is probably fair enough, since there are so many male filmmakers who don't care about women.

Still, there is nothing in the film to balance the strong emphasis on the kiss between Sally and Clarissa, nothing to suggest what men might be good for. Mrs. Dalloway says, "I never want to convert anyone. I just want everyone to be themselves." Gorris is, on the other hand, a converter.

The compositions are bland and static; the scenes of Septimus at the psychiatrist's office, leaden and overacted--with close-ups on the blubbery lips of the quack doctor who doesn't have a bit of compassion for the patient. As the suffering veteran, Graves, busy and jittery, doesn't give us enough sense of what it might mean to be a member of a restrained society and yet unable to control yourself.

Without knowledge of Woolf's pioneering quality as a writer--never before or since has there been such a recessive pioneer--Mrs. Dalloway is a confusing picture, an avant-garde work in Masterpiece Theater drag that provides the usual longing look at the objects and pomps of yesterday, the servants and the swans.

Mrs. Dalloway's life is so bottled up that a superficial glance makes you angry at the stasis of it all. Insufficient grounding--characters cut off at the feet, as it were--makes Mrs. Dalloway a film with a gap in it--another jewel with a flaw.

Mrs. Dalloway (PG-13; 97 min.), directed by Marleen Gorris, written by Eileen Atkins, based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, photographed by Sue Gibson and starring Vanessa Redgrave, Natascha McElhone and Rupert Graves.

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From the March 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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