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Feb. 22 1998 3:30 AM

Floaters

Virginia Woolf's characters drift dreamily onto film.

Mrs. Dalloway
Directed by Marleen Gorris
First Look Pictures

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Is there anything less cinematic than a lengthy swatch of voice-over prose recited straight from the pages of a 75-year-old novel with the camera yoked to an actress's face? Well, actually, yes, about a million things (car chases, ocean liners taking on water) when the words are Virginia Woolf's and the face is Vanessa Redgrave's. In the last half-hour of Marleen Gorris' film of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf's rhapsodic prose and Redgrave's radiant countenance combine for some of the most transcendentally beautiful cinema I have ever seen.

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Before I go nuts with the superlatives, let me add that the previous hour of Mrs. Dalloway is pretty spotty. The novel, published in 1925, stands shoulder-high to Woolf's next book, To the Lighthouse--which is to say, to one of the dozen greatest novels written after World War I. It's almost entirely interior, set behind the eyes of a handful of upper-crust Londoners, with point of view slipped like a baton from one character to the next. How do you adapt it for a medium as surface-oriented as the movies? The book is so musical in its ebb and flow that it might lend itself best to a chamber opera, consisting entirely of interwoven solos--monodramas seen and heard by the audience, no one else.

Gorris--who is Dutch, and whose previous works include the rabid A Question of Silence (1983) and the Oscar-winning Antonia's Line (1995)--doesn't get all the notes right, but at least she gets that there ought to be notes: that the work is fundamentally musical, and that the music shivers with nostalgia.

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For much of the first hour, Redgrave's Clarissa Dalloway drifts around a sunny, post-World War I London, talking excitedly of a party to take place at her home that evening, exchanging formal pleasantries with various aristocrats, and moving in and out of her memories. We move with her, back before the war, as the young Clarissa (Natascha McElhone) lazes elegantly on a vast estate, romping with her saucy (and politically progressive) friend Sally Seton (Lena Headey) and putting up with Peter Walsh (Alan Cox), a misanthropic but palpably smitten suitor. Then she meets the bland, proper Richard Dalloway (Robert Portal) and, in choosing to marry him, goes where she has been bred to go--and where she will be safest. The very title of the work is tinged with regret, since its protagonist is presented to us not as lighthearted Clarissa but as the older Dalloway's somewhat shrinking, sickly missus. (It's odd that Gorris, whose other films are so flagrantly--even homicidally--feminist, should put so much more emphasis on Clarissa's rejection of Peter when Woolf gives equal, if not stronger, weight to her inchoate romantic feelings for the vivacious Sally.)

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W oolf provides a nightmarish echo to Mrs. Dalloway in Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves), an ex-soldier who has had the misfortune of witnessing a buddy being blown to bits in front of his eyes. He now slips in and out of lucidity before his despairing, Italian-born wife, Rezia (Amelia Bullmore); like Clarissa, he is haunted by the lack of permanence in all things. Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus never meet, but Gorris brings them in sight of each other at the start of the film; and news of Septimus' fate triggers Mrs. Dalloway's tortured and then euphoric final musings--the epiphany that brings the movie to its poetic conclusion.

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Until then, the doings have been awfully prosy. Mrs. Dalloway's flashbacks are of the Masterpiece Theatre variety when they ought to have been less objective, more impressionistic, even if such doodling had come at the expense of a full-bore narrative thrust. (Woolf herself is always losing the pulse of the narrative--which is perhaps the whole point.) Eileen Atkins, the English actress who adapted Mrs. Dalloway as a labor (or labour) of love, has done almost too smooth a job of translating its characters' stream-of-consciousness perceptions into speakable dialogue. Better, I think, to have left some bleeding fragments. If ever a project called for a combination writer-director--a writer who would confidently leave things unwritten, secure in the knowledge that he or she would, as director, fill it all in--it's Mrs. Dalloway.

As Gorris weaves together past and present, often moving back and forth several times in a single scene, she aims for a melting fluidity. But her images refuse to melt. Her pass-the-baton shifts in point of view come off as fancy but not especially resonant. When the camera lingers on Mrs. Dalloway's daughter, Elizabeth (Katie Carr), as she sits on the top of a double-decker bus, the girl's face is blank and the moment empty of meaning. Why have we followed Elizabeth onto this bus? (I half expected it to flatten some poor Tolstoyesque peasant.) It turns out that we stay with her so she can gaze, in passing, at an apartment house--so that the camera can travel up to and through a window and come upon Septimus supine on a sofa, contemplating--what? Read the book to learn what he's thinking and feeling, because all Gorris gives us is a guy grimacing on a couch and a lot of distant explosions to signal his flashbacks.

It is Graves who suffers most from the lack of imagination. The traumatized, flashback-ridden veteran was a novel figure when Mrs. Dalloway was written--and something of a mascot for the postwar modernist literature that followed. Now, after decades of watching sweaty Vietnam vets sitting bolt upright in bed after acid-soaked nightmares of their buddies getting disemboweled, moviegoers regard such characters as so much Freudian chin music. In the book, what goes through Septimus' head retains its power to startle--not so much for what he remembers as for how his remembrances color the present and pierce its surface like an X-ray. The movie's Septimus never seems more than a literary conceit, and only in his fleeting moments of sanity does Graves acquire a mordant poignancy.

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I t should be said that Redgrave, in addition to being too old for Mrs. Dalloway, is too tall (she looms over her husband) and too forceful. All of which means, of course, diddly squat. It barely matters that the book's characters have been aged from their 40s to their 60s to accommodate her, because what else do you do when you have a shot at casting the greatest actress in the world? Even silent, Redgrave is plangent, a quivering string. Pity the poor actress who has to embody her earlier self. McElhone is a handsome young woman with the demeanor of an Irish milkmaid--not so much unformed as opaque. There's a thin line between period acting and overacting, and more than once McElhone drifts over it.

With the exception of Bullmore's ghastly Rezia (her accent is pathetic), the rest of the actors are treasurable: Michael Kitchen as old Peter Walsh, who melds so perfectly with Alan Cox, the young Walsh, that I wondered if Gorris had got hold of a time machine and used the same actor twice; Selina Cadell's rough-hewed missionary Miss Kilman; Sarah Badel's stout and effulgent Lady Rosseter (the aged Sally Seton); Oliver Ford Davies' lockjawed twit Hugh Whitbread; John Standing's anxiously settled older Dalloway; and the lyrically foolish Lady Bruton of Margaret Tyzack, full of liberal schemes for helping the unemployed by shipping them off to Canada.

But it is Redgrave to whom we return. In the last half-hour, at the party, we are finally allowed to hear Mrs. Dalloway's thoughts. (Why couldn't there have been voice-overs all along?) As Redgrave moves from person to person--worrying about what each is really thinking, and about the young man whose tragic fate she heard tell of from one of her guests--the movie floods with feeling. As potent as one of Beethoven's last string quartets, Mrs. Dalloway becomes a heartbreaking meditation on the evanescence of all things. And like Clarissa herself, I didn't want the party to end. I'll see the film again for the last sequence alone: anything to stare at Redgrave's face once more, to hear her say, "You want to say to each moment: 'Stay. Stay. Stay.' "