'Mrs. Dalloway' Feels Right on Screen

Are filmmakers afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Novels by groundbreaking authors like Jane Austen and Henry James have filled movie screens in recent years, and stage productions have focused on Woolf's life and work. But film directors have steered away from her, perhaps because her writing is more experimental and therefore less easily adapted than most.

This makes Marleen Gorris's screen version of "Mrs. Dalloway" something of a news event as well as an impressive movie. In her first offering since "Antonia's Line," an Oscar winner two years ago, Gorris has met the challenge of Woolf's style, translating it into motion-picture terms with a surprising degree of success.

The story takes place on a June day in 1923, when England has recovered from the effects of World War I but is still coming to terms with the grim lessons it taught.

The heroine is a middle-aged London woman who appears to have built a comfortable life but is troubled by memories of the past - and by suspicions that the world might seem far less hospitable if she allowed herself to examine it more closely than her sheltered existence requires.

We watch her activities and listen to her thoughts as she prepares for a party she's giving, encounters a long-ago suitor, and hears about the death of a shellshocked veteran whose image has haunted her.

Much of the film's interest comes from screenwriter Eileen Atkins's transformation of the novel's interior monologues - conveying Mrs. Dalloway's thoughts via streams of expressive prose - into an articulate voice-over narration. This preserves the story's introspective quality while making the heroine an engaging figure.

The other key element is Vanessa Redgrave's acting in the title role. This isn't one of her very greatest performances, since her radiance is so strong that it outstrips the personality of the somewhat unsteady character she's playing. Even at her second-best, though, Redgrave is one of the most compelling talents in movies today.

Gorris's filmmaking is also strong, avoiding the ideological overkill that made the feminist message of "Antonia's Line" less persuasive than it should have been. Rupert Graves and Michael Kitchen head a talented supporting cast, and Sue Gibson's cinematography makes the movie sparkle.

* Rated PG-13. Contains wartime violence and themes of sexuality and suicide.

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