Defanged Woolf

We should be thankful, I suppose, for the headlong assault by assorted filmmakers upon the dark castle of Great Literature. For one thing, it reduces the need for college students to squander their hard-earned beer money on Cliffs Notes. It also reminds patrons in the sports bars that iambic pentameter is not an Olympic event.

Emboldened by the high-toned successes of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala combine in splashing Henry James's tales of lost innocence and the hand-wringing agonies of E.M. Forster onto the silver screen, movie directors who had previously entertained no thought more profound than how Rambo should arm himself for jungle warfare are suddenly wrangling with the depths of Hamlet and the fine ironies of Edith Wharton. If there's a paragraph of beleaguered Jane Austen that has gone unsullied by the great minds of moviedom, let's hear it recited now.

The current mountain-into-molehill project appears to be the English experimentalist Virginia Woolf--a novelist who, until recently, remained all but unknown beyond the heady realms of the New York Times Book Review and the honors English program at Vassar. Mention the Bloomsbury Group to most Americans and they think you're talking about an investment firm.

Anyway, here comes Mrs. Dalloway to the multiplex, and if Dutch director Marleen Gorris (Antonia's Line) is afraid of Virginia Woolf, she's not letting on. Instead, she has plunged into one of the most complex and, some would say, forbidding novels about the passage of time and the misplacement of values with a fervor Attila the Hun might admire. That such advanced literary devices as the internal monologue and stream of consciousness don't transfer to the screen very well doesn't seem to have occurred to her. What we've got here is the feminist orthodoxy dolled up under bright sunshine, our Mrs. D. in a blue picture hat with a yellow feather. What we have here is a Woolf tamed and defanged to the point of inertia by a filmmaker who doesn't grasp the difficulty of her task.

All right then, Vanessa Redgrave. Admirers of this indestructible English icon and sometimes political activist will probably find good reason to embrace her again here. Trouper and sensitive soul that she is, Redgrave essays the elder embodiment of Woolf's most famous character like a woman on a divine mission. To say it simply, she agonizes picturesquely over how Clarissa Dalloway has blown it--how the properly reared Victorian maiden of 1890 came to reject her adventurous suitor Peter Walsh for the safety of the plodder Richard Dalloway, how she came to lament her choice, and how she now faces, on a day in June 1923, the prospect of hosting a party that cannot possibly equal the bright dreams of her youth. Give Redgrave her due: She tries her damnedest to get these worries and traumas out of her interior and onto the screen.

"You want to say to each moment: 'Stay, stay, stay,'" the heroine tells us. Well, maybe, but you might not feel that way sitting in the movie theater. While hacking away in the literary thicket, Gorris, whose feminist credentials are as sturdy as the late Ms. Woolf's, and scriptwriter Eileen Atkins lay on great gobs of Victorian mannerism and post-World War I angst, plenty of crinoline, top hat and snobbish English society jabber about who's worthy and who's not. If you're looking for a period piece that out-styles the high stylists Merchant and Ivory, then here you are.

Because of the tale's widely spaced time periods, it also requires two actors for each part, and (looking on the bright side) that gives everyone a chance on screen--Natascha McElhone as the young Clarissa, Michael Kitchen as Peter the elder, Alan Cox as Peter the younger, and John Standing and Robert Portal as the two Richards. Unfortunately, none of the actors seem to be acquainted. Even if you allow for the ravages of time and tide, it's almost impossible to see, for instance, how Portal's courtly young Richard grew up to become Standing's ossified Member of Parliament. About the vast gulf between the undeniably pretty McElhone's gift for expression and Redgrave's, the less said the better.

This isn't the only oddity of casting here: Atkins, the screenwriter, is also an actress who has specialized in portraying Virginia Woolf on stage; Redgrave played opposite her as Woolf's presumed lesbian lover, Vita Sackville-West.

Devotees of Mrs. Dalloway--the great twentieth-century novel, not the talkie--will recall that Woolf employed not one alter ego but two. The Clarissa who, in twilight, looks back on her life as "corruption, lies and chatter" but survives nonetheless is offset by the figure of Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves), whom the title character never meets. A suicidal war veteran haunted by death (specifically, the death of a comrade named Evans), Septimus's last day on earth coincides with the day of Mrs. Dalloway's party, and his doom is an ironic inversion of the heroine's will to go on.

In the end, of course, Woolf was more Septimus than Clarissa: Ever the manic-depressive, the author threw herself into a river in 1941.

Today Gorris misapprehends the Woolfian method--mosaic, multi-layered, almost cubist in conception--in a way that most any other filmmaker might. She tries to play the time and altered-sensibility game, shifting crazily from the hope and innocence of youth to the regret and disillusionment of June 1923. But the disparate images on the screen, gauzily dissolving into each other from time past to time present, serve largely to point up the inadequacy of Gorris's technique to deal with Woolf's lifelong obsession with what time does to the unseeable landscapes of heart and mind. Sometimes (in floundering movie adaptations of Joyce and Woolf, for instance), a thousand pictures are not worth the several hundred thousand words on which they're based.

Does that mean difficult authors like Virginia Woolf should never be "popularized" via the movies? Of course not. In fact, we need look no further than Sally Potter's daring adaptation of Orlando, released in 1993, for inspiration. If anything, Woolf's conception of time and character are even more radical in that book--the protagonist lives for 400 years, first as a nobleman in the court of Queen Elizabeth I, then as a vividly contemporary woman of the twentieth century--but director Potter took to the complex Woolfian interior with loose-limbed fluency. Wisely, she half-dreamed a movie. Alas, Gorris and Atkins have remained resolutely awake.

Mrs. Dalloway.
Screenplay by Eileen Atkins, from the novel by Virginia Woolf. Directed by Marleen Gorris. With Vanessa Redgrave, Natascha McElhone, Michael Kitchen, Rupert Graves and Alan Cox.


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