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Gorris's Dalloway

An early nomination for next year's Oscars.

Alan A. Stone

Marleen Gorris sat across from me looking like the cat who had just swallowed the cream and was now eyeing the canary. Gorris was on the Boston leg of what became a triumphal tour promoting her new film, Mrs. Dalloway. After 15 years of struggling in Dutch film-making obscurity, she earned international recognition when Antonia's Line took the Oscar for best foreign film in 1997. That success brought Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave to her door with the proposal that she direct Atkins's screenplay of Virginia Woolf's novel, with Redgrave as Mrs. Dalloway. Their collaborative effort has won rave reviews from critics, and Gorris suddenly has become an international celebrity.

The Boston advertising agency where we met was laying on the super-deluxe treatment, with a huge bouquet of freshly cut flowers and good food on the conference table. I was made to feel as though I had been granted a thirty-minute audience with the Pope. But Gorris was not handing out benedictions, nor were we there to smell the roses. She had read my long interpretive review of Antonia's Line ["A Second Nature," Boston Review, Summer 1996] and was keen to set the record straight. Indeed, she objected to virtually every word I had written about her. I had described her as a Eurofeminist. "What is that?" she asked; she did not belong to or identify with any organized feminist group. She said that she was first and foremost an artist, and that her "feminism" was an expression of her personal views rather than any shared ideology. "Where did you get all that?"

Unfortunately, I had read and quoted from the press releases for Antonia's Line which had described her as "The apotheosis of angry militant Eurofeminism." Her first two films, A Question of Silence (1982) and Broken Mirrors (1984), were undeniably male-bashing jeremiads that could have earned her that characterization. And when she barred males from the premiere of Antonia's Line at the Cannes film festival, her statement seemed more political than personal. But the Marleen Gorris I talked with is certainly not a political ideologue. It seemed correct to apologize to her there and then, and I now do so in print. It is apparently difficult to accept the lesson I have learned many times before: the person you have imagined may not be the author of the book you have read, and the same is obviously true of auteurs of movies. Although I was prepared to recant all this, she wanted more.

Gorris rejected my supposition that Antonia's Line marked a sea change in her creative work-from take-no-prisoners feminist rage to earth-mother celebration of life. Gorris believes that all her films were gestating in her mind simultaneously; only by chance was Antonia's Line the last to appear. Moreover, she now feels there are no more scripts in her and is quite happy to be directing. She has willingly abandoned the role of writer which I thought central to her creative and professional identity. From her perspective, writing is a lonely introverted labor, whereas directing is a convivial extroverted venture that she thoroughly enjoys. She changed not, as I thought, in order to create Antonia's Line, but because its success has allowed her to become "a cheerful extrovert." Her phone is ringing off the hook with offers to direct films (a film based on Nabokov's novel about chess, The Defense, is in the works) and even Hollywood is nibbling.

Although Gorris was delighted with the words of praise I had given to Antonia's Line, she made it clear that she did not share my assumptions about the film's underlying intellectual coherence. Many people were puzzled about the meaning and significance of the film's mad Madonna, who bays at the full moon and dies of frustrated love for her Protestant neighbor who soon follows her to a shared grave. On her own death bed, Antonia hears this mad Madonna calling her to come out and play, suggesting that the mad Madonna had some special narrative even symbolic significance. When I asked Gorris to solve this puzzle, she had no solution. She assumed I might not know that the Catholic Church forbade marital unions with Protestants. She added that the part of the mad Madonna demanded a very great actress, and that she had brought the mad Madonna into the final death scene because it was otherwise too depressing. Fellini said he always made a point of lying to interviewers, but I do not think Gorris was following his tradition. This was the artist getting the last word with her presuming critic: she really is an intuitive artist, not the Eurofeminist intellectual I had projected.

Though chastened by Gorris's dismissal of my interpretation of Antonia's Line, I was unwilling to recant any further and so took the path of least resistance and turned to Mrs. Dalloway.
The film is so beautifully made that she has every reason to feel glorious about her accomplishment.

Before meeting Marleen Gorris, it had seemed extraordinary to me that Atkins and Redgrave had offered her their project. Mrs. Dalloway was a story about London, its institutions, and the English people. How could they think a Netherlander would have the right sensibilities? But Gorris in person (and accent) is as much British as Dutch. And when one reflects again on Antonia's Line one can see that the film takes on many of the challenges posed to a director by Mrs. Dalloway. Both are stories about a day in the life of a woman, and have her looking back on that life in memory. Both are gynocentric, with a lesbian theme. Both are "poetic narratives" about beginning again after war. Both are meditations on difference and community. Both are about a godless world in which you can have a life but cannot save your soul. Atkins and Redgrave must have also recognized Gorris's painterly eye and wit, her brilliant casting, and the memorable performances she elicited from her entire company.

Gorris was obviously delighted to have been given the opportunity to direct the film, but was quick to let me know that she was not given a choice about who would play Mrs. Dalloway. The deal came with Vanessa Redgrave. Redgrave does not fit the faded and fragile beauty described in the first pages by Virginia Woolf: "A touch of the bird about her, of the jay, blue green, light, vivacious, though she was over fifty, and grown very white since her illness." There is nothing bird-like or fragile about the tall and broad-shouldered Redgrave, whose first appearance in her fashionable broad- brimmed hat conveys more rustic cow-maid than elegant London lady. The question immediately arises: will this marvelous actress be able to weave a spell that makes her the delicate Mrs. Dalloway, who gives a special party that even the Prime Minister attends?

Many spells had to be spun in working with Woolf's masterpiece and much of the credit must go to Eileen Atkins. Her entire career seems to have destined her for success in transforming Mrs. Dalloway into a screenplay. Atkins was co-creator of Upstairs Downstairs, the celebrated television series set in the same time period as Mrs. Dalloway that captivated so many loyal American viewers, and in recent years has made a specialty of Virginia Woolf. She wrote and acted in a one-woman show about Woolf called "A Room of Her Own." Then, she wrote and co-starred with Redgrave in "Vita and Virginia," a play about Virginia Woolf's affair with Vita Sackville-West. But none of these efforts or achievements compare with the undertaking and the success of the screenplay for Mrs. Dalloway.

Virginia Woolf summons up London on a day in 1925 when it is still trying to cast off the horror of the first world war. Woolf wrote in her common book that the "vast catastrophe of the European War" had frozen England's emotions and they "had to be broken up for us and put at an angle from us, before we could allow ourselves to feel them." This novel, which reads like a prose poem, is her attempt. Leading us inside the stream of consciousness of each of her characters, she explores the psyche of Septimus Smith, a man destroyed by the wartime horror, and juxtaposes his demon of darkness to Clarissa Dalloway's demon of light-Smith commits suicide, whereas Dalloway decides to go on living. The prescience of Virginia Woolf's understanding of psychological trauma rivals the greatness of her literary sensibility. Everything we now know about post-traumatic stress disorder is there in Septimus's case of delayed-onset shell shock. But Woolf is not just an insightful psychopathologist; she is able to move from mind to mind and let all the characters themselves and their fantasies give the work its vision of a social reality that brings a day in London to life.

The greatness of the work and its sustained poetic language might make one think it could never be transformed into a film. Yet the film is true to Virginia Woolf and quite beautiful in its own way. James Joyce said that his own, much more arcane stream-of-consciousness writing was partly inspired by what was then the miracle of cinematic technique. Atkins has demonstrated that such writing can be translated back into cinema. Hollywood gives an Oscar each year for the best screen adaptation of a previously published work. If Atkins is not a nominee there is no longer intelligent life in la-la land.

Early readers of Mrs. Dalloway were puzzled about why Septimus, the shell-shock victim, was in the novel at all. They read the story narrowly, as a portrait of Clarissa Dalloway's day. The novel can be read that way, but Woolf's act of emotional restoration was far more ambitious. The delayed onset of shell shock in Septimus is a defining symptom of the malady of the English consciousness still recovering from the great war. London itself-its streets, building, traffic, and the plane skywriting above the city-feed like rivulets into the stream of consciousness on which the reader is carried.

The screenplay recognized the importance of Septimus; indeed the film begins with a war scene on the Italian front when he sees his friend blown up. Septimus repeatedly flashes back to that moment. And flashbacks are of course the method of this film and the novel, as Mrs. Dalloway revisits the moments in her youth when she chose among the three rivals for her love. There are two men, Peter Walsh and Richard Dalloway, and her beautiful vivacious girlfriend, Sally Eaton. Virginia Woolf's novel certainly does more than hint at a kind of love between Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Eaton, and the film gives it more weight than one may have sensed in the novel. Mrs. Dalloway in the film version seems more haunted by what might have been in her relationship with Sally than in her choice of Richard over Peter. Although Gorris may again vigorously disagree, this emphasis surely has something to do with her personal sensibilities. We are shown Clarissa Dalloway in the film kissing each of these three youthful rivals for her love. Peter Walsh the passionate young man who wants too much of her, thrusts his embrace upon her impetuously. Richard Dalloway, who makes her feel safe, hands her a bouquet of roses and kisses her gently like a fond uncle. But when Clarissa and Sally kiss, we are shown their shared feelings of attraction as they are drawn together in a perfect erotic moment. And when that sensual kiss is interrupted by men, we see the look of distracted frustration, prolonged and unmistakable on Clarissa's face. That kiss takes place in a romantic starlit night; the men have to go about it in broad daylight, one looking like an overgrown child, the other more ceremonious than sexual. And it is only with Sally that we see Clarissa enjoy moments of real human intimacy. Again, one can find that in the novel but it leaps out at us in Gorris's beautiful film.

This lesbian theme adds to the film's poignancy. The novel is about a 52-year-old woman, aware that life has passed her by, reflecting back on her youth-a time of great promise. Her husband, Richard Dalloway, is good and kind, but she wonders what her life might have been like if she had chosen the passionate Peter Walsh. Peter, back from India, still loves her and wonders what his life might have been if she had married him. In this novel, as in life, the golden promises of youth go unfulfilled: we planned to change the whole world, but the world resists. Woolf's novel and the film are, among other things, a meditation on that theme. Richard Dalloway was to be the prime minister of England; now he will not make the cabinet. Peter Walsh was to go out to India and become a great writer; he has not written a word. Sally Eaton was to be a socialist who put an end to private property; instead she married a factory owner and produced five strapping sons. And Clarissa Dalloway, who might have done anything, took the safe route in a marriage; the high point in her life is giving parties. The passionate adventure of life is over for her. She has affection but no intimacy, and is not even sure that her only daughter values her. As she looks back, we see those moments of intense intimacy with Sally that delight and stir Clarissa. Sally is irresponsible enough to run naked through Clarissa's country estate, shocking the maid and delighting her friend. In this film Sally is the erotic possibility that makes Clarissa wonder about her deeper possibilities. The men are only potential husbands. What would have happened if Clarissa had pursued those possibilities with Sally? Would she have become a different person? Did she miss out on something? Or is this erotic bisexual possibility just another golden promise of youth that cannot be fulfilled or sustained? However one answers those questions, the screenplay emphasizes (as did Woolf) that the young woman's possibilities come down to the choice of a husband, whereas men get to choose a career. It is against that inequity that one should measure Clarissa's choice of a husband who gave her room of her own, the same kind of choice Virginia Woolf made herself. But in that room at age 52, Clarissa has begun to feel lonely.

If Gorris did not have a choice about Redgrave, she made it clear to me that she had a say about all the other parts, and her choices for the foursome of young lovers brilliantly helped in her telling of the story. The young Clarissa (Natascha McElhone) is at the same time incredibly winsome and credible as the young Redgrave. Peter Walsh is a petulant young man (Alan Cox) and a swaggering middle aged one (Michael Kitchen), both barely concealing the character's insecurity. The young Richard Dalloway (Robert Portal) becomes the avuncular affectionate husband (John Standing) he figured to be. But with the casting of Sally, Gorris shows the stroke of wit we saw in Antonia's Line. The young Sally (Lena Headey) is a dark-haired seductive beauty of intense physicality who turns up at Clarissa's party as Lady Rosseter (Sarah Badel) in a sagging middle-aged corset of fat. The metamorphosis is an enactment of Woolf's theme about the passage from youthful radiance to middle-aged stolidity and done with the same sense of truth-telling humor Gorris showed us in Antonia's Line.

Clarissa Dalloway embodies the passage from youth to age, in her case from vitality-Gorris has her running all the time-to fragility. Redgrave's rawboned broad-shouldered strength has always constrained her ability to play the ingenue, and Clarissa Dalloway is an aging ingenue. Still, Redgrave is a great enough actress to make you believe that she is Mrs. Dalloway. Some will sense the effort she is making, and perhaps Gorris is one of them. The stretch in every scene is not just her physical presence; one must also forget that she is the social activist member of the Workers' Revolutionary Party and think of her as a dithery if charming lady of the upper-crust who is preoccupied with a quite different kind of party. That said, Redgrave's performance transcends mere success: she gives a certain heroic power to Mrs. Dalloway that helps this film version do its work.

The culmination of the film-novel is of course the party. But the screenplay also ties together Septimus's fate in suicide and Clarissa's in an affirmation of life. Redgrave talks often in the film in voice-overs, particularly to speak lines from Woolf's text. Trained in the Shakespearean tradition, Redgrave soliloquizes with great power. And in the last scenes of the film she is in her acting element. She contemplates suicide like Septimus, and realizes that he will never lose his youth as she has. But if she is small-minded and petty at times, she understands that her party is not just for herself: it is to affirm the others. She is there for them in a moment that redeems their loneliness and hers.

Mrs. Dalloway has too much bitter truth in it to be sentimental; Gorris's film is faithful to the novel's sense of lost opportunity if not lost hope. The last faded image is of Clarissa, Sally, and Peter as young people looking glum as if they already know their future. Gorris told me she has trouble with endings, but this one is successful, if somewhat ambiguous. Though Woolf's novel does not have a dramatic ending, it finishes on an upbeat note. That upbeat note might, however, have rung false for those of us who know that Virginia Woolf put herself into this novel of English consciousness and eventually did follow Septimus in suicide. Many people will leave the theater quibbling and complaining that the film gets Virginia Woolf's novel all wrong. But if we can believe that Virginia Woolf left us a literary treasure that increases with time, this can be counted as one of its new jewels. As for Marleen Gorris: however she goes about making her films, one must bow to her artistry, wish her well, and hope for more.

Originally published in the April/ May 1998 issue of Boston Review

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