Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's first successful stream-of-consciousness experiment, is an odd choice of a novel to film. Its action is nearly all interior, yet director Marleen Gorris and screenwriter Eileen Atkins have made the story feel as active as it possibly could. The aging Clarissa Dalloway (Vanessa Redgrave) is to give a party, and during the course of a day her thoughts fly from how to create the perfect gathering back to long-ago summers--memories stirred up by the return from India of one of her old suitors. Also wandering about London that day is a World War I veteran, Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves), who's experiencing what we now recognize as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Clarissa and Septimus are linked by parallel sensory impressions, by their mental frailties, and by the callous treatment they both receive from the medical profession, but nothing else; the film can't begin to get this relationship across.
Flashbacks, on the other hand, are a modernist technique that adapt well to the screen, and Gorris fares better with the relationship of Clarissa's past and her present. Except that young Clarissa doesn't seem anything like the insecure, intensely self-conscious Clarissa of the novel or the older version of herself played by Redgrave. Young Clarissa's spunkiness, plus a nagging resemblance between Natascha McElhone, the actress who plays her, and Kate Winslet, made me think that Clarissa was one step away from running up the gangplank to the Titanic, which is entirely the wrong impression. One is left wondering what could have transformed such a vibrant young woman into such a bundle of distracted, obsessive fears. This is a lovely adaptation of a nearly unadaptable work, and should please fans of Merchant-Ivory type productions. But for answers one should turn to the novel.