I think Mrs Dalloway is one of the greatest books ever written – extraordinary in its approach to looking at humanity, with a keen sense of humour and a unique structure. It seems to be a book that is pretty much unfilmable, because most of what I liked about Mrs Dalloway can only be garnered through reading it. Yet, it doesn’t mean someone is above trying to film it, and they certainly did attempt to do it. While the 1997 version of Mrs Dalloway is not close to being as wonderful as the book, it is still certainly very special in its own way.
Mrs Dalloway is about Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged woman in London in the post-Edwardian era, directly after the First World War. She is to give a party that night, and over the course of one day, she undergoes several identity crises and starts to question her identity, thinking about her place in a patriarchal society, and how it forced her to suppress her homosexuality that she explored when she was younger.
Nearby there is another figure, Septimus Warren Smith, a shell-shocked war veteran that has terrible Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and struggles to intergrate back into society. The two characters never meet, but they do represent the same critique against society. Over the course of one day, we track these characters and their roles in society.
The success of Mrs Dalloway comes from its lead star. Vanessa Redgrave is an extraordinary actress, and while she may have been an obvious choice for the lead role, she imbued the character with a true sense of vulnerability and insecurity, whereas her contemporaries would play her as too falsely glamorous or over-sure of her role in society. Redgrave is wonderful in the film – she truly embodies the existential crises Clarissa goes through. It highlights Redgrave’s unique acting sensibilities, and while it may not reach the heights of some her her better and more acclaimed performances, it is certainly a great showcase for Redgrave.
The best part of this film is undeniably Rupert Graves, who is incredible as the terrified Septimus Warren Smith. He gives a performance truly faithful to what I imagined Septimus to be in the book. He is the emotional core of this film, and he brings the character to life in such a meaningful and moving way. His emotional arc is so terribly tragic, and it is only amplified by Graves’ commitment to the role. Septimus is a tragic character of Shakespearean proportions, and Graves plays the role perfectly. Truly an amazing performance from an actor that isn’t appreciated quite as much for his talents as he should be, in my view.
The supporting cast of this film is good, but not quite as good as Redgrave or Graves. Michael Kitchen plays the eternally fascinating Peter Walsh wonderfully, with precision and dignity, as does Alan Cox, who plays the younger version of the character. John Standing and Robert Hardy do very well with characters that are vital to the novel, but aren’t that important to actually make much of an impact to the plot other than helping it move forward. Its also interesting to see a much younger Lena Headey in this film, watching her in something other than Game of Thrones (its interesting how enormous shows like Game of Thrones can sometimes force an actor to be viewed in only that one specific role)
Overall, Mrs Dalloway is a pretty simple film. It is your run-of-the-mill literary adaptation. It is somewhat faithful to the book, serving the purposes of telling this story in the way that I imagine Woolf would’ve wanted. It isn’t experimental in any way, and it really does stand inferior to other literary adaptations of Woolf’s work (as well as the incredible Woolf-inspired The Hours).
I feel like this film could’ve been made to be a bit more experimental and audacious as the novel, but in the end, it was pretty good as it is, and it will satisfy fans of the novel who want a visual representation of this story. I just wonder why no one has dared to remake it, because this is something that could truly be made into something special with the rise of some very audacious filmmakers. There isn’t much to say about Mrs Dalloway other than it is a simple literary remake with good performances and a faithful dedication to the source material.