Those who have never read Virginia Woolf may imagine that hers is a world much like that of the 19th-century novelists recently claimed by Hollywood’s classics divisions, most notably Jane Austen and Henry James. Superficially, they would be correct: Woolf does depict the idle upper classes, an era of vanished gentility and formality, and the powerful emotions stirring discreetly beneath the finery of the social elite. Alas, this is virtually all of Woolf that survives in the tepid, stodgy Mrs. Dalloway, a film notable principally for its costumes, decor, and impeccable British acting.
Surely, though, actress-writer Eileen Atkins knows better. Before scripting Mrs. Dalloway, she turned Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own into a one-woman show and wrote Vita and Virginia, derived from the letters of Woolf and her intimate, Vita Sackville-West. (The latter project starred Atkins and her friend Vanessa Redgrave, who now plays Clarissa Dalloway.) Atkins must understand one thing this film utterly misses: that Mrs. Dalloway is not about Mrs. Dalloway.
Obviously inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses, Woolf’s novel depicts one day in 1923 in Londonher London, which includes only such central districts as Westminster and Bloomsburywith a few flashbacks to Bourton, the country house where Clarissa grew up. The story introduces, in both middle-aged and young incarnations, Clarissa’s husband Richard (John Standing/Robert Portal), her spurned suitor Peter Walsh (Michael Kitchen/Alan Cox), and her close friend Sally Seton (Sarah Badel/Lena Headey). Contrasting Clarissa’s settled life is the plight of Septimus Warren Smith (Rupert Graves), a World War I veteran suffering delayed shell shock, and his helpless Italian wife Rezia (Amelia Bullmore). Although the two characters never quite meet, Clarissa’s vague discomfort at the way her life has turned out is amplified by Septimus’ profound anguish.
Director Marleen Gorris disrupts the book’s elegant structure immediately, opening with Septimus at the Italian front in 1918. After that, the movie follows the novel closely, although at the significant cost of Woolf’s digressions, which are essential to her method. As in the book, Clarissa plans one of her famous parties, Peter returns after years in India, Richard has lunch with a wealthy busybody, Septimus consults a psychiatrist, and Clarissa’s teenage daughter Elizabeth (Katie Carr) goes out with a frumpy missionary of whom the elder Dalloways disapprove.
Certain incidents take on a significance they lack in the book. As might be expected from the director of the matriarchal parable Antonia’s Line, Gorris plays up the single kiss between Sally and the young Clarissa (Natascha McElhone), an event that’s less resonant on the page. Indeed, Gorris and Atkins stress the lost days at Bourton, perhaps because the flashback is one of the few devices they can muster to simulate Woolf’s overlapping series of interior monologues. This is a credible strategy, except that the actors who play the younger characters seem to have little in common with their older counterparts. Crucially, McElhone’s blithe, high-spirited Clarissa could not possibly have grown into Redgrave’s circumspect, slightly vapid Mrs. Dalloway.
It’s the latter who provides the film’s finest moments. Redgrave embodies Mrs. Dalloway’s shifting perceptions and emotions, from her exultation at the little things of life”What a day for my party!”to her regret and dread about the larger ones. Redgrave is at the center of the most effective scene, when Clarissa effusively greets her guests while her voice-over thoughts express private doubts and disapprovals. This sequence is the only one that rivals the richness of Woolf’s prose, and suggests how much better Mrs. Dalloway would have been if Gorris and Atkins had more boldly sought cinematic equivalents to the author’s stream-of-consciousness techniques.
Perhaps they didn’t because they took the novel’s title too literally, deeming dispensable the various musings of the many other characters. Yet they’re all essential to the story’s structure, and Septimus is just as important as Clarissaperhaps more so. He’s prepared to contemplate suicide, as was Woolf herself. (She killed herself 16 years after Mrs. Dalloway was published.) “Death is defiance,” muses Clarissa. “Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone.”
That doesn’t sound very much like an English costume drama, and it’s the sensibility that was lost in extracting a tale of quiet upscale regret from the book’s multilayered narrative. Woolf’s 73-year-old novel is faster-moving, more experimentalindeed, more “cinematic”than this movie, but above all more philosophical. Consider, for example, the passage that explains that Mrs. Dalloway is in fact about its title character, but in a way the film doesn’t begin to suggest:
“It was unsatisfactory, [Clarissa and Peter] agreed, how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on a bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind the countereven trees, or barns.”
That’s a demanding prescription, which is probably why Gorris and Atkins ignored it. Still, Woolf followed it, and it was precisely because she did that she wrote such extraordinary novels. A resourceful filmmaker could construct the sort of narrative tapestry that would do justice to such a book, deftly melding individual thoughts into a group consciousness. Indeed, if you want to see the sort of film Mrs. Dalloway should have been, just go see The Sweet Hereafter.
As terse, dogged, and manly as its protagonist, U.S. Marshals is a winning example of the high-budget Hollywood game of tag. You could almost call this an intelligent thriller, except that it has no intention of engaging the mind. The movie means to be brainless, in the same way that any intense physical activity bypasses the intellect.
That’s vital, because on paper U.S. Marshals is pretty shopworn merchandise. Not only is it a sideways remakecall it an obliquelof 1993’s The Fugitive, but it features the usual complement of noble loners and disreputable organization men. The heroes may be U.S. marshals, but you can be sure that the U.S. government smells as bad as it always does in Hollywood law-and-order flicks.
This is the first produced script from John Pogue and the second directorial assignment for Stuart (Executive Decision) Baird, but it employs The Fugitive’s basic premise. (That explains the “Based on characters created by Roy Huggins” credit.) Tough-bitten U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) must track down an innocent accused murderer (Wesley Snipes) whose first name is Mark but whose supply of surnames is extensive. As if the formula hasn’t already been established, it’s clear just from the casting that Mark is no bad guy: Snipes doesn’t need to play villains anymore, and there’s no way that radiant Krzysztof Kieslowski muse Irène Jacob (who plays Mark’s loyal girlfriend Marie) would turn up as a moll.
Reintroduced as he apprehends some toughs while wearing a chicken suit, Sam is that Hollywood ideal: the folksy, unassuming, yet indomitable alpha male. As a covert-action veteran, Mark is supposed to be more mysterious, but he too is supercompetent and nearly invincible. Although the script conspires to keep them adversaries, it’s obvious that they can’t really be enemies. The real evil must be elsewhere, perhaps in the form of Chinese spies or maybe among the secretive government agents who contribute one of their own (Robert Downey Jr.) to the hunt. The only potential surprise is in the timing of the revelations about Sam and Mark’s common foes.
The rest is devoted to action set pieces, including an airplane crash, various car chases and crashes, a search of a not especially mucky swamp, a tussle in a ship’s hold full of grain, a shootout in a cemetery, and a daring leap from a building’s roof that ends atop a moving train. Jackie Chan and John Woo do this sort of thing better, of course, but U.S. Marshals seldom drags. Besides, Pogue is not quite ready to write crowd-pleasing social commentary, as he proves with a hospital scene in which Marie complains that “for all the taxes Americans pay,” health care should be free. A Frenchwoman complaining about America’s high taxes? Quick, bring on a car crash!CP