Mrs. Dalloway


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Two elements make Virginia Woolf's complex novel difficult to interpret in a screenplay:

(1) The story intertwines two stories which are virtually unrelated. Woolf created the novel by combining two of her short stories without actually bringing them together. In one of the stories a 60ish English matron recalls the decisions of her youth which led her to her current station, and which might have led to a very different life if reversed. In the other story, a shell-shocked veteran of WW1 loses his grasp on reality, and he commits suicide after being provoked by some ignorant decisions by his doctor. Every Virginia Woolf story seems to include at least two occasions when people contemplate suicide, often followed by a successful attempt. Woolf herself committed suicide about twenty years after this story was published, by filling her pockets with heavy stones and walking into a river.

Except for common themes (Mrs Dalloway and the soldier both  ruminate interminably about the impermanence of existence), the two stories have only the vaguest connection, and the two central characters never meet at all. Mrs Dalloway finds out about the young man's suicide because she has invited the insensitive doctor to one of her parties. Hearing the story prompts her into a Hamlet-style monologue (interior monologue in this case) about the nature and frailty of existence. Of course it's common to treat two such unrelated stories in a modern novel, which can theoretically be of unlimited length (and Virginia Woolf admired Proust, so unlimited length could well have been within her aspirations).

(2) The novel is told with a modernistic narrative style, ala Joyce's Ulysses. The sentences can drift along in the stream of consciousness (see an example in the right column), and the actual time frame of the story, like Ulysses,  is a single day in Mrs Dalloway's life as she prepares to host a lavish soiree for the creme de la British creme. Within that time frame are her recollections of the summer thirty years earlier when she was being romanced by three people - two male and one female - and her musings about how her life might have been if she had made one of the other choices. In addition to her thoughts, the narrative slips into the minds of others, including the disturbed former warrior.

The film version of Mrs Dalloway is a sporadically effective attempt to bring a this unfilmable novel to the screen. The film's creators had some success in meeting the second challenge outlined above. The narrative problems seem to have been handled quite smoothly through a combination of flashbacks and present day drama, with the occasional use of voice-over narrative to represent Mrs. Dalloway's thoughts.

Unfortunately, the other problem remained intransigent, to the point where the audience is left entirely baffled by all the scenes with the deranged soldier, and viewers feel stranded in episodes which seem at the time to have absolutely no bearing on the main plot. The complex and mostly implicit connection between Dalloway and the soldier, which fits comfortably within a modern novel, does not slip so easily into a screenplay for a 97 minute movie. If it is truly the story of Mrs Dalloway, and if we really care about that story, then all the screen time devoted to the troubled veteran seems like an interruption of the film's momentum, and a deliberate effort to give short shrift to the story of Dalloway and her youth. And there's just no need for it. The mortality themes can be developed within Mrs. Dalloway's story and do not require any reinforcement from the other character. Given that fact, the soldier's story is really on screen to portray the uninformed treatment of mental patients in the early 20th century. While that is certainly a worthwhile topic, and one that Virginia Woolf knew intimately and well from the emotional distress she suffered throughout her own life, it was a theme that seemed too ambitious to add to the to-do list of this short film.

Although the soldier's final day of life does later generate an important reaction from Mrs Dalloway, her reaction to his suicide is no more dramatic than it would have been if she had merely heard about it and imagined some details. In fact it would probably be better that way, because the audience would then be experiencing the news in Dalloway's own point of view, which would make it consistent with the rest of the film. The script came up with no good reason to portray the soldier in flesh and blood, and if he had been kept as an off-camera anecdote it would have allowed more time to develop Clarissa Dalloway's romantic rectangle from the past. When the great party finally begins in the film's present time, it just so happens that the two jilted lovers both choose that very day to reappear in Mrs. Dalloway's life, even though she has seen neither for many years prior to the day of the party. The viewer is left wondering what their lives have been like in the interim, and more of that exposition would have been more interesting than the lunatic babbling of the soldier turned mental patient.

In my opinion, the film had another problem greater than the sticky narrative structure. As portrayed on screen, Mrs Dalloway and her male lovers are not very interesting. Mrs. Dalloway seems to be a sweet person, but before she turns into Hamlet she seems like a superficial twit who spends far too much time thinking about parties, both in the past and the present. Her husband is a boring aristocratic bureaucrat of limited intellect and no imagination. The jilted male suitor is supposed to be brainy and adventurous, but we know that only because people say it. What we actually see is that he's a whiny bitch who spends three quarters of his screen time pouting.

While Mrs. Dalloway wonders whether she should have chosen the passionate intellectual over the staid aristocrat, it is apparent to us that the alternate relationship with the moody intellectual really had no promise at all. The future Mrs. Dalloway was too superficial to fit into his expatriate world, and he was just too immature and idealistic to handle marriage. He thought he was in love with her only because he was young and impressionable and she was a beautiful woman with a generous, pleasant nature. She demonstrated no sense of adventure or intellectual curiosity, and in his youthful infatuation he failed to realize that hers were not the ideal qualifications for a woman who would have to endure significant hardships in sweaty foreign assignments. The film's version of Mrs Dalloway never shows any depth at all until she enters her "to be or not to be" monologue, but by then the credits are about to roll, and it is too late to show us what the jilted suitor ever saw in her in the first place, other than a beautiful smile. And I have no idea what she saw in him. The basis for their attraction could have been demonstrated by giving those characters some of the screen time currently dedicated to the incoherent mumbling of the soldier.

But that's only the half of it. The other intrinsic problem is that Mrs Dalloway is not shown to have any real attraction for either man, so we wonder why the choice between them weighs so heavily on her. In fact, the only time when she truly seems in love is when her idealistic girlfriend kisses her passionately, whereupon she seems to be transfixed under a spell of delight and satisfaction. She has no similar response to either man! When the script is mulling over her regrets about choosing the wrong man, it should have shown her questioning whether she should have chosen a man at all! The body language of the actors showed that the female suitor was actually her true love, and the female suitor also seemed to me like the liveliest, most imaginative, best read, and most interesting of the four characters in their youth, so I was left wondering why Mrs. Dalloway spent so much time mulling over her rejection of the wimpy guy, which seems to the audience like a pretty shrewd and obvious move, while she never really considered what her life might have been like with the daring woman she truly loved! There is a warrant for that interpretation on the pages of the novel ("Her relation in the old days with Sally Seton. Had not that, after all, been love?"), and an even stronger justification in Virginia Woolf's own existence. After all, Woolf wrote this book about the subjects she knew. She was not only suicidal and a frequent mental patient, but was also a bisexual who preferred women. Vita Sackville-West, not Leonard Woolf, was the true love of Virginia's own life! Given the novel's focus, Virginia Woolf's own inclinations, and the fact that the film's director is noted for her own preference for female characters in both her life and her films, this script could easily and legitimately have promoted the lesbian attraction from sub-text to text, and it would have been a better film for it.

The one thing I found most impressive about the film was the way Vanessa Redgrave (old Clarissa Dalloway) and Natascha McElhone (young Clarissa) managed to seem like the same person, even though they do not look much alike. I don't know how the two actresses worked it out, but they did a marvelous job of creating a mutual set of mannerisms which were identical down to the tiniest visible nuances: the same way of holding their hands, the identical accent and phrasing, the same spontaneous nervous smile, and so forth. The film featured good performances from both women, as well as from Lena Headey as the female suitor (playing a very young woman, although she was 31 at the time!) I might have been drawn into the story if only there had been some worthy males for them to play against!


* widescreen, but letterboxed, not  anamorphic, and with significant grain in the transfer.

* no features except a theatrical trailer





3 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
3.5 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
67 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)


6.9 IMDB summary (of 10)

Not unexpectedly, it receives its highest ratings from women over 45.


Box Office Mojo. Box Office Mojo lists the total domestic gross as $3.3 million, but that seems like a misprint, given that the site also list the maximum distribution at eight theaters and the opening weekend at $90,000. My guess is that the $3.3 million has an extra zero in it, and should be $330,000


  • Lena Headey showed her breasts and bum in a daring nude run to the bathroom. There may be some fleeting glimpses of her pubes in the scene, but they are imperceptible without freeze-frame, and questionable even when frozen.



The complete book online. (Project Gutenberg Australia) "search inside the book"

Mrs. Dalloway study guide. Compact and useful summaries and links. It was prepared by First Look Films, the studio which made the film, but there is less about the film than the book and its author.

Wikipedia: Mrs._Dalloway

Wikipedia: Virginia_Woolf





Listlessly, yet confidently, poor people all of them, they waited; looked at the Palace itself with the flag flying; at Victoria, billowing on her mound, admired her shelves of running water, her geraniums; singled out from the motor cars in the Mall first this one, then that; bestowed emotion, vainly, upon commoners out for a drive; recalled their tribute to keep it unspent while this car passed and that; and all the time let rumour accumulate in their veins and thrill the nerves in their thighs at the thought of Royalty looking at them; the Queen bowing; the Prince saluting; at the thought of the heavenly life divinely bestowed upon Kings; of the equerries and deep curtsies; of the Queen’s old doll’s house; of Princess Mary married to an Englishman, and the Prince—ah! the Prince! who took wonderfully, they said, after old King Edward, but was ever so much slimmer.




Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Although it is a reasonably good interpretation of Mrs Dalloway in some respects, I found it disappointing. It's too ambitious for its running time, resulting in a lack of focus and a superficial treatment of everything. I find that especially disappointing in light of the fact that the director's Antonia's Line is a personal favorite.