A Bright, Wicked Mrs. Dalloway Disgraces a Salacious Dickens

Marleen Gorris’ Mrs. Dalloway , from a screenplay by Eileen Atkins, based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, manifests itself on the screen as a melody of half-notes on the eternal subject of the way we are in contrast to the way we were. The film, like the magnificent novel from which it is adapted, begins on a summer day in London, June 13, 1923, to be precise, and ends before dawn that same night, but not before Clarissa Dalloway’s halcyon past is recalled in intermittent flashbacks.

Mrs. Dalloway is giving one of her fashionable parties at her home in Westminster to which even the Prime Minister is drawn. As the 50-something hostess, played by Vanessa Redgrave, embarks on her errands through St. James’ Park, she cannot help reminiscing on the long voyage in time she has taken since, as a spirited youth named Clarissa Parry (Natascha McElhone), she chose from among her three suitors, young Peter Walsh (Alan Cox), young Hugh Whitbread (Hal Cruttenden) and young Richard Dalloway (Robert Portal). All three admirers, now more than three decades older if not wiser, are to attend Mrs. Dalloway’s party of self-discovery.

Not to mention the ghost of the banquet, the ill-fated Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves), who crosses Mrs. Dalloway’s path momentarily on that day in 1923, and then passes on to eternity, one of the lingering casualties of the Great War that changed England and the world forever.

If you’re talking stream of consciousness, you’re welcome to James Joyce’s Ulysses , but I’ll take Mrs. Dalloway over Ulysses any day of the week. But then I may be prejudiced. The first great love of my life was a Virginia Woolf scholar to whom I paid homage by tackling the entire Woolf oeuvre and thus “discovering” the sublimity of Mrs. Dalloway . Indeed, I was so overwhelmed that I employed the pen name Peter Walsh for a few movie reviews I did for Jonas Mekas’ Film Culture magazine in the 50’s. What could I have been thinking of? Peter Walsh is one of the most self-aware failures in world literature. Was he my image of myself in my late 20’s when I was floundering in futility by losing the girl and having nothing to show for it in the way of a career? Peter Walsh was me back then, but now I am closer to Richard Dalloway. Well, not really, and I can look at poor Peter with a kind of rueful detachment as someone who, by some miraculous sequence of events, I escaped becoming in my “mature” years.

Women have told me that Joyce understood their sex better than any male writer of his time. What continues to amaze me about Woolf is that she understood the inner lives of men better than any male writer of her time, and that is one thing I miss in the superb screenplay of Ms. Atkins, who is as close to a living reincarnation of Woolf as can be imagined. Still, it is hard to imagine Mrs. Dalloway adapted at all in a 97-minute film, much less in such a brilliant manner as to prove itself as one of my favorite films of 1998, and it is only February. As for Ms. Gorris’ deft direction of this exquisitely subtle material, I was surprised somewhat, in view of the hard-edged feminism displayed by the Dutch filmmaker in the Oscar-winning Antonia’s Line (1995), A Question of Silence (1982) and Broken Mirrors (1984). Sally Potter’s earnest but cumbersome treatment of Woolf’s Orlando in the 1993 Tilda Swinton tour de force provided a cautionary reminder of the danger of reducing Woolf’s poetic art to a political agenda. Ms. Gorris avoids Ms. Potter’s error by modulating the scathing irony in the narrative, and respecting the dignity and decorum of the slightly ridiculous characters of a certain period, a certain class and a certain age.

Where I give Mrs. Dalloway the decisive edge over Ulysses is in Woolf’s political sophistication and Joyce’s provincial Homeric presumption. Woolf demolished the pious patriotism of the Great War through the searing visions of Septimus Warren Smith. Joyce remained content to magnify microcosms into macrocosms. Woolf is funnier as well.

Ms. Gorris and Ms. Atkins have achieved a rippling merriment in the rhythms of the actors. As in the most effective adaptations of Henry James, some of the most beautiful prose passages in the English language have had to be encapsulated in pithy phrases or omitted altogether. Yet when every member of the cast down to the tiniest bit player projects the authority and confidence only British ensembles seem consistently capable of managing, the Woolf magic takes a different but equivalent form. Ms. Redgrave as Mrs. Dalloway and Mr. Graves as Septimus take top honors in their dialectically opposed roles that make the plot swing back and forth between biography and history.

But Ms. McElhone and Mr. Cox succeed admirably in making the young Clarissa and the young Peter illuminate the fateful moments of seemingly small talk that will shape two destinies irrevocably, so that 33 years later, Clarissa and Peter, once poignantly young and hopeful in a Victorian country paradise, can come together again in a Georgian city purgatory and realize, at long last, that as much as Clarissa had broken Peter’s heart, Clarissa had always known herself and Peter better than Peter had ever known himself or Clarissa. What had happened had to happen.

Michael Kitchen as the mature Peter Walsh and John Standing as Richard Dalloway, the man of substance, look at each other amid the festivities of Mrs. Dalloway’s party and seek vainly to recapture the past they once shared. But it is in these expressions of remembrance, regret and remorse that feelings beyond words are reawakened. Ultimately, it is Ms. Redgrave who weaves all the tangled strands of the narrative into a tapestry of bright colors, wicked insights and graceful gestures of recognition and consolation.

There is a persistent rumor that Ms. Redgrave was mistakenly denied a best supporting actress Oscar for James Ivory’s Howards End (1992) when the presenter mistakenly read Marisa Tomei’s name instead for her bright comedy performance in Jonathan Lynn’s My Cousin Vinny (1992). Whether the rumor is true or not, the Academy has another chance to honor Ms. Redgrave, and I hope they take it.

Deconstructing Dickens

Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations , from the screenplay by Mitch Glazer, based on the novel by Charles Dickens, made me wish that I had been a fly on the wall during the story conference on this ludicrously updated remake of David Lean’s 1946 version of the Dickens novel. I’d be willing to bet that no one in the room had actually read the book, relying instead on videotapes of the Lean classic, which they were going to improve by injecting some sex and nudity into the romance of Finn (changed from Pip in the original) and Estella. After all, kids today wouldn’t be satisfied with the chaste peck on the cheek Jean Simmons’ young and haughty Estella allowed Anthony Wager’s young and enraptured Pip to bestow on his first and everlasting love. One can still remember that enchanted moment more than half a century later. The new and gratuitously salacious Great Expectations should find itself in the dustbin of film history before the month is out.

Ethan Hawke as the grown-up Finn and Gwyneth Paltrow as the grown-up Estella are such poorly written characters that it is unfair to compare them unfavorably with John Mills and Valerie Hobson in the original. Nor are the badly directed but undeniably talented Anne Bancroft and Robert De Niro to be blamed for failing to make us forget Martita Hunt and Finlay Currie in roles they made their own forever.

The biggest problem in the new version is the inability of Americans to appreciate the intricacies of a Victorian class structure. When you think about it, the Pip of Dickens and Lean is given a bequest to go to London and become a gentleman of means, requiring nothing more than the proper manners to give and attend parties, which is to say that Pip does not actually have to “do” anything, if we may revert to contemporary New York cocktail-party parlance. That would never do for an American hero, and so Finn comes to New York to become a brokenhearted artist-celebrity, though his presumed “genius” is clouded somewhat by the belatedly mumbled revelation that Finn’s convict benefactor has made him a success by buying up all his paintings and drawings even before his one-man show. That should confirm anyone’s worst suspicions about the SoHo art scene.

Dark and Dirty Shock Corridor Reopens

Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), from his own screenplay, is being revived in a spanking new 35-millimeter print with a color sequence I do not recall seeing when I reviewed this cult classic for The Village Voice when it opened. At the time, I was embroiled in a bruising polemical battle with Pauline Kael and her many supporters, most of whom deserted her when they realized that she, too, loved movies. Still, she had made me a bit self-conscious about my endorsement of Fuller’s flair for a kind of serious-minded pulp cinema. She told me that director Irvin Kershner had congratulated her in Hollywood for blasting critics like me for praising filmmakers as vulgar and garish as Fuller (1911-1997). When I finally met Mr. Kershner, I felt myself closer to his sensibility than to that of Fuller, that Visigoth of vulgarity from the real world of the yellow press in Shock Corridor , a film that was so much more vital and lucid than most of the desiccated noir films of today. See it with an open mind and an understanding heart, and enjoy.

A Bright, Wicked Mrs. Dalloway Disgraces a Salacious Dickens