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Mrs. Dalloway

movie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Mrs. Dalloway

Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Natascha McElhone
Director: Marleen Gorris
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 97 Minutes
Release Date: February 1998
Genres: Drama, Romance

*Also starring: Rupert Graves, Michael Kitchen, John Standing, Alan Cox, Lena Headey, Margaret Tyzack, Sarah Badel

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Psychologists and journalists seem almost prosaic when they discuss mid-life crisis and post-menopausal syndrome. To find a more lyrical expression of the dubious pleasures of these phenonema, you'd have to turn to literature, and when you direct your attention to the novelists you could not do better than select Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway." In her novel, which was first published in 1925 and which deals with the period immediately following World War I in England, Woolf creates a 52-year-old woman, the title figure, who seems to plunge into late-mid-life straits one morning and to reconcile herself to her plight by the evening. Experimenting with interior monologues and numerous stream-of- consciousness flashbacks, Ms. Woolf constructs a story to which a great many of us can relate in a book which is considered by some literary critics to be her masterpiece.

Because of the fluidity of its telling--particularly in its early segment in which Mrs. Dalloway introduces the movie audience to many characters both in the present and her youthful bloom--the novel adapts easily enough to the movie medium. In director Marleen Gorris' ("My Antonia") hands with the adaptation of the principal performer's right-hand woman, Eileen Atkins, the First Look Pictures interpretation of this thoughtful piece highlights both the satirical take on the British upper classes and the somber drama of a woman in distress. You come away from this movie with a better understanding of two of its principals, "What does the brain matter, when compared with the heart?"

Centered on Mrs. Dalloway, who is played by Vanessa Redgrave--a luminous woman considered by some the world's finest actress--the story unfolds in a tony section of London on a sunny day in June 1923 as Mrs. Dalloway (Vanessa Redgrave) gleefully prepares for a party by stopping in a Bond Street florist's shop and walking spiritedly about a park announcing plans for "my party." Despite her outward show of happiness, which is genuine so far as we can see, she is inwardly troubled by a decision she made some 30 years back when she chose a safe marriage to a successful politician who still loves her and rebuffed the entreaties of an impetuous, adventurous young man. As she begins to relate her torment to the movie audience, Sue Gibson's camera plunges us into Clarissa Dalloway's youth, revealing her courtship with Peter Walsh (Michael Kitchen) and baring her 20-year-old self as performed by the lovely Natascha McElhone. While she is apparently footloose and fancy-free with this spontaneous young man, she is bewildered by her sexual feelings toward her best friend Sally (Lena Headey), who at one point prances naked throughout Clarissa's home and unselfconsciously embraces and kisses her pal. As though the two brash young people were not enough for her fragile emotions, she is pursued as well by the somewhat stodgy Richard Dalloway (Robert Portal), who is determined to make his mark in politics and appears to promise her a safe, comfortable, frivolously bourgeois life filled with teas, parties, and idle chatter.

In a fragment of the story seemingly unrelated, we are made privy to an account of a disturbed fellow, Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves), shell-shocked from an experience during the war in Italy, in which he witnessed the sudden death by a explosion of his fellow soldier and comrade, Evan. We are soon to see a parallel between Septimus's life and that of Clarissa--both share a backdrop of homosexual feelings, both are afflicted with demons, and both have contemplated suicide. (Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie is the subtext in which novelist Virginia Woolf, who took her own life, has projected her passions onto this disturbed young man.)

Particularly suited to the medium of film is director Gorris's lavish evocation of the life of a snobbish British society of the 1920s, a haughtiness that has by no means disappeared in that thoroughly class-conscious isle. Miss Kilman (Selina Cadell) effectively conveys the religious extremism of one sector of the upper caste, insisting that "there is wisdom in suffering," and tries to inflict her ideology onto Clarissa's beautiful 17-year-old daughter Elizabeth (Katie Carr)--who is strangely infatuated with this older woman. The film's lingering exposition builds up to its most striking segment, as guests arrive for Mrs. Dalloway's party and, for the most part, engage in trivial and prevaricating conversation. It is here that the movie shines, utilizing the technique of inner monologue as did Eugene O'Neill in "Strange Interlude" to contrast with the outward conversation. While lavishing compliments on her guests, Clarissa shares with us--and with us in the movie audience only--her true feelings about the prigs and uglies in attendance. When Peter, the true love of her youth, arrives unexpectedly, her spirit soars, an incident which only makes her ponder once more on the mistake she may have made in choosing her loving but stuffy husband.

"Mrs. Dalloway" has the Merchant-Ivory look, a view that should be taken as an entirely positive measure. The entire ensemble, but especially Ms. Redgrave, convey the flights of feeling that entangle their lives, the sudden changes of fervor that make life both exciting and anxiety-ridden. Mrs. Dalloway's ultimate reconciliation, which is furthered by news of the fate of the shellshocked young man who is about to be involuntarily sent to an institution for "rest" by an unfeeling duo of psychologists, is credible, dramatic, and moving.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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