In Mrs. Dalloway, the accomplished but slightly tedious adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s great novel, Vanessa Redgrave displays again the devastating gentleness familiar from her performance in Howards End. In that movie, Redgrave appeared briefly as the dying Mrs. Wilcox, a beautiful, unselfish woman – and an emanation of the purest sympathy. With only a few lines of dialogue, Redgrave suggested fathomless spiritual depths. Her vagueness was dominating, almost imperial – a ruminative grandeur that would have made sentiment of any overt kind, expressed in her presence, impossibly vulgar. Vanessa Redgrave has always possessed a genius for doubleness. Tall and broad-shouldered, with long arms and enormous hands, she is, God knows, a very palpable physical object. Big as life (bigger, really), she stands, or lies, before us, and yet she often seems lodged somewhere else at the same time, far away and lost in communion with gods too intimate for public scrutiny.
The doubleness becomes explicit right at the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway. Walking down a London street on a beautiful June day in 1923, Clarissa Dalloway feels herself to be nothing, a mere nobody – and at the same time, she registers with delight every element of sunshine, the movement of traffic and the passersby, the glitter of shops. This prosperous woman – married to a member of parliament – is preparing for her annual party. Obsessed with silverware and flowers, Mrs. Dalloway nevertheless lives in a spiritual realm. She is not without faults, but she is great in empathy and alertness, and Redgrave, capturing her formal gravity, speaks slowly but without pomp. The public words are entirely conventional, the internal monologues (which we also hear) vivid and rebellious. In the hours before the party, Mrs. Dalloway reviews her life, casting back 30 years to easy summer days at her family’s country estate, where, as a young woman, she rejected a demanding, puppyish suitor, Peter Walsh, in favor of the more stable and successful Richard Dalloway. Did she marry the right man? Just home from India, Peter (Michael Kitchen) shows up on the day of the party, and we can see that he’s still charming and boyish, still ardent, but also unfinished in some way, a failure.
Now, it has been much noted that Virginia Woolf’s heroines are not bold and intellectually distinguished like herself but gracious mothers and housewives, women who preside over personal relationships and marshal the silverware. Years earlier, young Peter had taunted Clarissa with her fears, and he was right about her – and also wrong. She has become something more than a public man’s hostess-wife, and the movie is devoted to the something more – the imaginative sympathy within the heroine that holds life together. Written by actress Eileen Atkins, who has adapted a number of Virginia Woolf’s works for the theater, and directed by Marleen Gorris, the Dutch filmmaker who won an Oscar for Antonia’s Line, this is a movie made with poise and distinction.
All day long, Clarissa Dalloway thinks of her disappointments, her fears, her jealousies, and she vibrates in unconscious sympathy with a man she never meets – a shell-shocked and increasingly suicidal war veteran (Rupert Graves) whose troubles she will first hear about that night, right in the middle of her party. The movie has no plot in the ordinary sense, but as Mrs. Dalloway, grief-stricken, takes a momentary break from the swirl of polite social chatter, the elements of past and present, mediocrity and success, death and life, all come together in her head. Has she led a good and worthwhile life or not? The movie offers its judgment.
In the early scenes in the streets and in St. James’s Park, as the forlorn war hero and his wife try to get through the day, Gorris jumps freely but coherently from minute observation of street life to lyrical fancy. Mrs. Dalloway flatters the movie audience with its high, quivering delicacy, its clear-eyed sensitivity. I wish, however, that Gorris did not stage social meetings so stiffly. These people are all from the same class and share the same assumptions; they are knowing, perhaps witty, yet they never seem at ease with one another. The stiffness may be intentional, a way of highlighting the difference between conventional surface and seething interior, but Gorris bores us with punctilious ceremony. She seems to be observing this society from another planet. Anyway, an emphasis on social behavior misses part of the point.
Virginia Woolf’s habit of running freely from past to present has been called cinematic, but that is a naïve description of a very complex method. Woolf may have been influenced by the cinema, but she creates perhaps the most densely woven web of allusion, memory, and observation in English prose. She doesn’t simply mix two time frames; she melds everything together in long passages of ecstatically heightened consciousness. This rich mental atmosphere – thick, bounding, grave yet playful – cannot be recaptured on film; anyone who tried it would simply get visual hash. The movie doesn’t offer hash; it is well ordered, beautiful, and clear. But it does what movies do, not what Virginia Woolf does. The filmmakers’ rather simple flashbacks to Clarissa’s youth (and this stuff is staged much more affectionately than the grown-up social scenes) are not very different formally from such sequences in dozens of other movies. When the poor war hero falls into delusion, we see a very literal spectacle of blown-up bodies; Atkins and Gorris thereby lose one of the central points of the book – that the shell-shocked veteran responds to nature and the world as the alert Mrs. Dalloway does (that’s what connects them), but whereas she sees joyous beauty, he receives a riot of sensuous impressions that overwhelms and defeats him. The book is endlessly subtle, the movie refined but rather obvious.
Mrs. Dalloway is at its most inventive, and most Woolfian, when Redgrave is front and center, behaving with elaborate social grace and thinking very different things to herself. Just hearing Redgrave pronounce the word “dis-ahs-ter” (her appraisal of her own party) is reason enough to see the movie. In any case, I can’t imagine any other actress large enough (in every sense) to hold together this plotless story. Redgrave makes the heroine all of a piece – timid, conventional, but alive to every breeze of consciousness.