Directed by Marleen Gorris — 1997, Netherlands / Great Britain — 97 minutes, color, 1.85 aspect ratio — Drama
IN BRIEF, powerful adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s modernist classic about a housewife whose life unravels while she plans an elaborate dinner party.
Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris (director of Antonia’s Line, which won the 1995 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film) and British screenwriter Eileen Atkins (also an acclaimed stage actress) have done the seemingly impossible. They have adapted Virginia Woolf’s landmark 1925 stream of consciousness novel, Mrs. Dalloway, with its structural and emotional richness not only intact but brilliantly reimagined for the screen.
As readers of Mrs. Dalloway know, the action unfolds on a lovely summer day in the early ’20s, as London society matron Clarissa Dalloway puts the final touches on her elaborate dinner party. But as she fusses over every detail, she recalls a summer long ago, when she was young: beautiful, lively, and sought after by many men… and one woman. Throughout the story, her life mysteriously connects with that of Septimus Warren Smith, a young World War I veteran descending into madness.
Vanessa Redgrave (The Loves of Isadora, Julia, Howards End) gives a beautifully shaded, and subtly nuanced, performance as Mrs. Dalloway. She reveals much about her character’s attitudes, and even her inner life, through the slightest turn of her head or lowering of her eyes. She is also successful at one of film’s trickiest devices, because it is so often used unsuccessfully: voice-over narration. Redgrave, with director Gorris and screenwriter Atkins (sometimes using Woolf’s text verbatim, other times paraphrasing but always with the right inflection), finds exactly the right tone. Voice over so often fails because it is used to cover up plot or character holes which the filmmakers were unable to solve more creatively. But in Mrs. Dalloway, Redgrave’s narration adds a new layer of emotional, and thematic, complexity to the film. It also serves, I think successfully, as a creative substitute for Woolf’s infrequent but resonant shifting of perspective (although she writes the book entirely in the third person, different sections have different tones, depending on which character she is focusing on). Redgrave brings Mrs. Dalloway, with all of Woolf’s emotional subtext, fully to life.
As young Clarissa, Natascha McElhone also gives an outstanding performance. In fact, the entire cast is uniformly strong. My only quibble is with Gorris’s decision to make the closeted lesbian religious fanatic, Miss Kilman (note Woolf’s satirical name for her, which sounds like “kill men”), into a solely comical figure. The novel presents a more ominous portrait of the woman whom Mrs. Dalloway sees as leading her teenage daughter, Elizabeth, into a world of extreme narrowness. As Redgrave’s Mrs. Dalloway says to Kilman and Elizabeth, “I just want everyone to be themselves.”
What makes Mrs. Dalloway so much more than, say, a Masterpiece Theatre production is Gorris’s inspired use of all the elements of film – widescreen composition, color, movement, sound, music, narrative structure, performance – to reimagine the novel for the screen, to make it both concrete and allusive.
I was particularly struck by how Gorris uses the color green throughout the film. With a seemingly endless set of variations on hue and texture, this one color becomes a primary way to give the film visual unity. This is important because the narrative frequently shifts between the film’s present in the 1920s and Clarissa’s youth. But Gorris makes green take on even more shades of meanings. It suggests the blurring of outside (forests, parks, gardens) and inside (wallpaper, furniture, clothing). Visually, it embodies Woolf’s theme of modern life cut off from, though still tenuously attached to, the natural world.
The use of composition is at least as inspired. Gorris and cinematographer Sue Gibson shot the film in 1.85 widescreen (i.e., they used a 1.85: 1 aspect ratio, in which the frame is about twice as long as it is high). They subtly move between shots which are unbalanced, which “feel slightly off” to the viewer, to those which are rigidly structured, with all the visual elements lining up too perfectly. This visual design perfectly complements the film’s (and novel’s) emotional and thematic development, as elegantly composed images gradually, inexorably move towards stasis.
Of course, I am not implying that the picture is a substitute for the novel: Gorris and Atkins would be as aghast at the suggestion as Woolf. But the film is is an extremely well thought out, moving, and incisive complement to the book. One element which it clarifies is the lesbian subtext. Although fleeting in the novel, it would have had special meaning to Woolf, who was bisexual or lesbian. She shared much of her life, and passion, with author Vita Sackville-West, who also inspired Woolf to write Orlando, a 1928 fantasy novel with a gender shifting hero/ine (creatively filmed by director Sally Potter in 1993).
Gorris, who is openly lesbian, keeps the interplay between young Clarissa and Sally (Lena Headey) restrained but suggestive, with lots of playful touching. Their relationship reaches a peak with a brief, but deeply moving, scene of the two women together at her family’s estate, which is at once idyllic and oppressive. (This scene occurs about 21 minutes into the film: Chapter 2 on the DVD.) Clarissa asks, “Sally, will we always be together?” She answers breathlessly, “Always. Always! We’ll change the world.” Commentatively, Gorris now cuts to a brief scene with middle-aged Mrs. Dalloway praising how well the maid has polished the silver candlesticks for her party. Immediately we cut back to Sally and Clarissa dancing tight against each other by a fountain. Slowly they draw closer together, moving into a passionate but tender kiss. A moment later, two men appear with quizzical, but not approving, looks. You can feel an entire path of Clarissa’s, and Sally’s, lives being closed off.
At the film’s (and novel’s) conclusion, during Mrs. Dalloway’s elegant party, she remembers not only the man (Peter Walsh) she might have married, but Sally. The high-spirited, sleek girl has now become the plump, giggly Lady Rosseter (Sarah Badel), the mother of five boys. As Mrs. Dalloway tells us ruefully in voice over, Sally is now “older, happier, but less lovely.” As she contemplates the suicide of Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves, who played Alec the gamekeeper in Maurice), whom she never met but whose image has mystically haunted her throughout the day (Septimus’ smug doctor is one of her guests), she also looks back on her youth. In particular, on the kiss she shared with Sally. Here, the kiss is remembered – or misremembered? – as being much longer, and even more impassioned, than what we saw before.
As Woolf puts it in her novel, Mrs. Dalloway has “lost herself in the process of living.” But we have also seen her gently but determinedly fighting to keep her mind and spirit alive. And by the end of the story, with her party a success and having come to some kind of terms with the fate of Septimus, she feels “less afraid.”
“Here I am at last,” says Vanessa Redgrave’s unforgettable Mrs. Dalloway in the last words of the film. Her voice drifts over the dancing couples of her present as the image slowly dissolves into the seated, immobile figures of their younger selves. The film poignantly captures, like Woolf’s novel, the aching poetry of lost opportunities… and achieved compromises.
Reviewed April 2, 2003 / Revised October 26, 2020