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Thursday, May 14, 1998

Mere dalliance

Movie: Mrs. Dalloway

Posted on Thu, May 14, 1998 at 4:00 AM

***
Our Rating: 3.00

The march of time leaves the title heroine of "Mrs. Dalloway" in its wake in director Marleen Gorris' film version of the Virginia Woolf novel. In reaffirming the immutability of history, however, the film sets itself up as a losing game that's none too rewarding to play.

In the course of one long, reflective day in 1923, Clarissa Dalloway (Vanessa Redgrave) is forced to take unexpected stock of a life that's been defined by muted potential. As she prepares to stage one of her celebrated parties, the aging, British socialite becomes preoccupied with memories of her life as a young woman, when she was faced with the choice of marrying within her class structure or pursuing a love more daring. We already know which course she's followed: Her life with the dull but reliable Richard Dalloway (John Standing) has kept her at the vanguard of Westminster society. It's a security she could never have found with Peter Walsh (Michael Kitchen), the romantic but less-than-ambitious young man who once sought her for his own.

Clarissa's faith in her decision is shaken when Peter arrives at her door, back from a five-year excursion to India. His reappearance fans the flames of her nostalgia, turning her recollections of simpler times into bittersweet, what-if scenarios. Adding to her unease is a morning glimpse of Septimus Warren Smith, a young veteran of World War I, whose shell-shock-induced madness provides the counterpoint to Clarrissa's memories of her own, comparatively carefree generation.

It takes some reflection of one's own to determine why none of the events of "Mrs. Dalloway" provoke the feelings of loss they're intended to. The performances, for the most part, can't be faulted. Redgrave strikes a nice balance between headstrong pragmatism and wistful contemplation, and Natascha McElhone lends the necessary spark of youthful mischief to the part of the young Clarissa in the film's numerous flashback sequences.

The failure, sadly, is Woolf's. The story asks us to join in a requiem whose gravity the author can't herself support. It's established early on that Clarissa didn't merely opt out of a life of challenge: As a creature totally of her era, she had no idea that the promise of adventure was genuinely available to her. She never had a full heart or head to lose. With that knowledge, it's difficult to want to give her ours.

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