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Mrs. Dalloway (1997)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 2000

Here's a question; how is it that a director can know when a novel is ripe for adaptation, that it'll transfer profitably onto the cinema screen? Does one look for visual poetry, microscopic details and wide-open vistas that scream for the camera? Perhaps dialogue is the key, the vehicle by which a cast can breathe life into their story? Then again could the setting be paramount, since without location how is the audience to be provided with a context? Actually the reality is probably a combination of all of these and more, with someone instinctively deciding that they alone can bring this book to a wider market. That might explain why the results are so hit-and-miss!

Based upon this argument, you might suppose that Eileen Atkins suffered from this exact flash of realisation when working through Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Within Woolf's perceptively observed paragraphs and delicate portraits, Atkins must have imagined Clarissa Dalloway (Vanessa Redgrave) taking substance as though a ghost from the mist. In her mind's eye she saw the setting of post-war London materialise into a certainty, perfect in balance and entertainment value. Distinct characters passed along the streets; Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves) in shell-shock delirium and Peter Walsh (Michael Kitchen) fresh from Indian affairs. All that she needed was a sympathetic director, a partner like Marleen Gorris.

Together Atkins and Gorris have pieced together a wonderfully obedient drama, a film that satisfies in its conformation. Mrs. Dalloway is packed with interesting, clever dialogue; well phrased and intentionally natural, it implies a well-written source. In that respect Woolf's memory is well served by this faithfully literal rendering. Still, this doesn't help a prospective viewer decide whether to read the story first and know what's going on, but perhaps be disappointed, or to come to the tale fresh and only later consider delving into the source material. Take it from me -- read the book! Elsewhere the movie is a joy to behold, with David Richens' beautiful costumes and delightful sets casting an enviable sheen over the proceedings. Photographer Sue Gibson latches onto the gleamingly polished automobiles and artfully situated beggars, turning stunning design into something hyper-real.

However, the weakness is that their product doesn't amount to much more than an intelligently structured distraction. It toys with love both found and lost, conventions and regrets but never penetrates past the emotional skin of its players. Over the course of a single day, Clarissa observes the build-up to a classical society gathering. In time it evolves into more of a reunion, inevitably coupling the present-day to thoughts of past romance and how each other's lives have turned out. These flashbacks are flawlessly integrated into the film's flow, often utilising a common theme to bridge the gap (be it flowers, music, a look or gesture), but they can't elevate Mrs. Dalloway to the level of a mind-expanding experience; it remains merely a pleasant diversion.

It has to be said though that Redgrave puts on a great performance, doing all in her power to give substance to Clarissa's inner thoughts. To everyone else she's the perfect example of cultured charm and poise, properly in keeping with her position as MP Richard Dalloway's (John Standing) wife. Yet internally (through voice-over) Redgrave shows how Clarissa is re-evaluating her youthful decision to play it safe, a monologue that runs through Mrs. Dalloway. As the object of her thoughts, Kitchen evokes a sun-tanned air of unpredictability while Standing gets to do little but look stiff and faintly uncomfortable. Graves, on the other hand, is more affecting in his portrayal of tortured despair; you can sense how near he is to lurching into the suicidal abyss. Mrs. Dalloway strains hard to link these notionally unconnected threads and almost succeeds, thanks to its cast.

After sitting through Mrs. Dalloway it's obvious why both Redgrave and Gorris were attracted to this project; Woolf provides such strong female characters. Perhaps a period drama wasn't the obvious choice for Gorris, after her award-winning debut Antonia's Line, but it does remain true to her stated feminist beliefs. It's also a story that anyone can identify with, that one's life can be mapped out by decisions taken. Of course, the irony is that those paths not chosen always shine with their original brilliance, while daily reality has its sheen stripped through repetitive mundanity and familiarity. Mrs. Dalloway certainly gives us the flavour of these regrets, if not the full three-course meal.

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