Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf film adaptations? I am, George, I am.
It's not Woolf herself who frightens me. No, what spooks me is the prospect of watching the author's meticulously constructed prose experiments in capturing consciousness on the printed page subjected to the Merchant-Ivory treatment.
There's a larger issue at stake here. I must confess that up to now I have avoided every one of the current crop of Jane Austen and Henry James film adaptations. The trailers tell me everything I need to know: radiant young movie stars romping across manicured lawns, pausing only for a sip of tea and a merry laugh, while pseudo-symphonic music swirls in the background.
Nothing spells -- or sells -- "culture" quite like the sight of well-paid, good-looking people playing poorly behaved landowners of a bygone era, acting out the plots of books you were assigned in high school.
That's what scared me when I learned that director Marleen Gorris ("Antonia's Line") and screenwriter Eileen Atkins had teamed up to take on "Mrs. Dalloway," a novel with its fair share of teacups, lawns and pretty young things, as a vehicle for Vanessa Redgrave.
In Woolf's hands, those cups and other objects serve as anchors for a net of fleeting thoughts and deep-rooted memories collectively woven by a half-dozen or so characters through a series of chance encounters over the course of a single June day in 1923.
A plane skywriting an advertisement for toffee, the tolling of Big Ben, a nap in the park: Each of these events provides Woolf with a chance to leap from one character's innermost being to another's. It's a device reminiscent of what James Joyce did in "Ulysses" (itself the basis for a dreary 1967 film) -- and not terribly unlike the way Richard Linklater would structure the movie "Slacker" 70 years later.
The novel is one of those books I can admire without actually enjoying. Woolf's tone here is a little too dry for my taste, her story not quite compelling enough to justify the effort required to sort out who's thinking what and when.
As it happens, Gorris and Atkins do take the "Masterpiece Theatre" approach to the material, heavy on period details and the external manifestations of the characters' social standing, accompanied by a relentless musical score. (All the attention to historical accuracy obscures the fact that when it first appeared, "Dalloway" was not a costume drama but a timely snapshot of contemporary life, set a mere two years in the past.)
Faced with a 300-page book that compresses at least three decades of memories into a single, largely uneventful day, the filmmakers have done an admirable job of sifting through plot strands, easing the intentionally jumbled story line into a more easily comprehensible chronology, and resisting what could have been an nonstop parade of monologues in favor of a single character's voiceover narration.
At the same time, the film version oversimplifies what was overly complicated in the novel. It's one thing for a woman to think to herself that someone is a snob who represents all that is detestable in British middle-class life, and quite another for her to say out loud: "You snob! You represent all that's detestable in British middle-class life!"
Fortunately, Gorris has an ensemble of first-rate performers to deliver such lines. All but two of the characters are split between a pair of actors, one playing the role as a youngster, the other his or her middle-aged equivalent.
Thus, Mrs. Dalloway herself is the joint creation of both Vanessa Redgrave and Natascha McElhone. The evolution of McElhone's carefree Clarissa into Redgrave's constrained socialite wife of a conservative politician is the real story here, told most eloquently through the look on Redgrave's face as she strolls down the street in the morning or gazes out a window at the end of the day.
But it's not the only story, for we also get glimpses into the inner lives of former lovers, future husbands and long-lost friends. Nor is the story simply a personal one; Gorris and Atkins preserve the source material's implicit connections among first-wave feminism, the British class system and the aftermath of World War I.
What separates the parallel stories of youthful innocence and midlife doubt is not simply the passing of a few decades but the horrors of the Great War, embodied here in the form of the shellshocked, suicidal soldier Septimus Warren Smith, skillfully played by Rupert Graves. While he's entirely outside the circle of friends and acquaintances invited to the Dalloways' latest party, his path intersects theirs at various points with profound consequences.
All of this, I assure you, is much clearer in the film than in the novel. Even so, audiences unfamiliar with the book but eager for another evening of high-fiber, low-calorie culture consumption after savoring the lovely ladies and gentlemen of "Sense and Sensibility" and "The Wings of the Dove" may still find the remains of Woolf's day-in-the-life a little scary.
Rating:*** 1/2 Adaptation of Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel about a day in the life of a British socialite and her friends. Starring Vanessa Redgrave and Rupert Graves. Directed by Maureen Gorris. Rated PG-13, playing in the Amherst Theater.