Arts & Entertainment
A High Society Hostess Reflects on Life
BY John Prizer
March 22-28, 1998 Issue | Posted 3/22/98 at 1:00 PM
Mrs. Dalloway captures the spirit of the liberal-thinking Bloomsbury set, but gets weighed down by its too-literary approach
The celebrated Bloomsbury group of early 20th-century artists and intellectuals had a single goal-the destruction of the institutions and values on which Victorian England had been based. That stable, prosperous, moralistic, bourgeois culture offended the aesthetic sensibilities of free-thinking talents like novelists E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, economist John Maynard Keynes, and essayist-biographer Lytton Strachey, who banded together to subvert family, God, and country. Instead they promoted art, socialism, and free love, preaching that personal relationships were more important than social status or economic achievement.
The members of the Bloomsbury set are hailed today by many in the academy and the media as cultural pioneers, role models for how to live and do good work in a morally relativistic society. Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway, propagates the Bloomsbury message in a subtle, ironic, literary fashion, and Dutch director Marleen Gorris (Antonia's Line) and British screenwriter Eileen Atkins (Upstairs, Downstairs) do their best to find its cinematic equivalent.
Clarissa Dalloway (Vanessa Redgrave) is the top hostess in highsociety London of 1923. On the day of one of her most glittering soirees, circumstances force her to reflect on the choices she has made during the past 30 years and whether or not her life has been wasted.
While selecting flowers for the occasion, Clarissa spies through her florist's window a young World War I veteran, Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves), who's suffering from delayed traumatic stress syndrome. He often thinks he sees walking towards him the body of a dead friend killed in the trenches. Although Clarissa never runs into him again, the movie stays with Septimus and his long-suffering wife, Sally (Amelia Bullmore), as they struggle with doctors' efforts to institutionalize him because of his suicidal tendencies.
The encounter haunts Clarissa for the rest of the day, and her memory is jarred. She flashes back to the summer of 1890, a time of crucial decisions in her life. The young Clarissa (Natascha McElhone) is enjoying herself on her family's large country estate. Two men and a woman are pursuing her. Peter Walsh (Alan Cox) urges her to abandon the values of her upper-class upbringing and live a “dangerous” artistic life with him. Her best friend, Sally (Lena Headley), is also a rebellious spirit who flirts with her while praising left-wing causes.
Clarissa spurns Peter because he “wants too much” of her and doesn't leave her emotional space in which to breathe. She responds to Sally's advances but is turned off by her obsession with social activism. Both Peter and Sally are afraid she will reject them for the more stolid, aristocratic Richard Dalloway (played as a young man by Robert Portal) who offers her security instead of adventure.
Back in the present, we learn that Clarissa has, in fact, married Dalloway (John Standing), an influential member of Parliament, who's given her a sheltered, privileged life many would envy, but who the filmmakers, following the novel, see as soulless and shallow. As proof, Dalloway and another of Clarissa's childhood friends, who now works for the royal family, are shown meeting with an eccentric, titled dowager (Margaret Tyzack), who wants to solve Britain's so-called population crisis by encouraging young couples to emigrate to Canada.
As Clarissa continues to prepare for the evening's events, a middle-aged Peter (Michael Kitchen) shows up for the first time in three decades. He's been working as a solicitor in India where he's made a mess of things. He clearly hasn't lived up to his potential. His much-anticipated novel remains unwritten. There's been nothing dangerous or exciting about his life except perhaps some illicit affairs. Nevertheless, he's still attractive to Clarissa, and she invites him to her party.
Clarissa's daughter has forgotten about the evening's festivities. She had planned to spend the time working in a mission shelter. She's becoming a practicing Christian. The filmmakers and Mrs. Dalloway disapprove of this. True to the Bloomsbury credo, the young woman's religion is caricatured as somber and humorless, a set of beliefs which constrict the mind and spirit.
Despite Clarissa's anxieties, the party's a great success. Both the prime minister and the Duke of Marlborough attend, along with her daughter. The surprise guest is Clarissa's youthful best friend, Sally, who has cast aside her lesbian tendencies and married a lord, producing five sons in the process.
Unfortunately, the coming together of all the suitors from Clarissa's past produces no dramatic fireworks. Although Peter still rails against the superficiality of the upper classes, he and everyone else behave with impeccable, stiff upper lip manners. He and Dalloway nod at each other politely, and Sally proffers cryptic words of wisdom like: “All our relationships are just scratches on the surface.”
One of the doctors who treated the shell-shocked Septimus makes an appearance and tries to enlist Dalloway in supporting psychologically damaged war veterans. The M.P.'s lukewarm response is meant to be an indictment of ruling class complacency. But like most of the movie's social criticisms, it's too oblique and ironic to have any dramatic impact. The movie has remained faithful to the novel's use of interior monologue to tell its story. As a result, there aren't enough plot twists or emotional climaxes to keep the audience interested.
The filmmakers are true to the Bloomsbury spirit in pointing up the vapidity of both 1890s' Victorian country gentry and the 1920s' London ruling class. Many of their observations seem accurate, but the self-confidence, cultural cohesiveness, and moral certitude of the era depicted look good compared to the anythinggoes cynicism of today.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.
Mrs. Dalloway has not yet been reviewed and classified by the United States Catholic Conference. The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.
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