Philip Glass’s soundtrack for the movie “The Hours”

Having been an admirer of Michael Cunningham’s novel, The Hours, about the relationship of three women at three different times to Mrs. Dalloway, I approached the movie with some trepidation, but was impressed by the performances of the three women (played in chronological order by Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep), while being disappointed in the performances by Ed Harris and Jeff Daniels of the 1990s men (the portrays of husbands in the 1920s and 1950s by and by Stephen Dillane and John C. Reilly were IMO fine).

While watching the movie in its theatrical release, I thought that Philip Glass’s musical soundtrack was overly intrusive. Repetitive, of course, but it did not differentiate between the three time periods. Nor did it particularly fit with what was on the screen. And for someone like me, very familiar with (and very moved by) Glass’s opera “Satyagraha” (which is also set in three different times, though focusing in men in those times), much was audibly recycled. OK choral music from the opera was scored for piano and orchestra. Bach recycled material, Handel recycled material, Rota and Orff notoriously have done it in movie scores.

hours soundtrack.jpg

I didn’t appreciate some of the music during the movie, particularly the middle of “For Your Benefit,” which seems particularly derivative Glass music in his tense mode, and the doodling of “An Unwelcome Friend.” In contrast, cut off from the movie, I find “Something She Had to Do” wistfully beautiful. The piano solo in “I’m Going to Make a Cake” is quite beautiful and gets mysterious as the piano gives up any semblance of carrying a melody and swirls.

“The Kiss” has an eight-note melody repeated over and over with a slowly moving anchor in the bass (strings in the soundtrack; piano in this recording) that is quite lovely. “Dead Things” has an interesting succession of falling (that belonged to strings) and rising (that was always the piano’s).

“Why Does Someone Have to Die?” repeats a four-note rising figure (not enough notes for the number of syllables of the title question). It sounds more heroic than mournful (rebelling against death, as Elias Canetti advocated). The first half of “Escape” is quite coolly lovely and after a brief alarm settles back to stately movie music elegy. “Choosing Life” is not audibly optimistic. It is also stately though moving slowly (very slowly) upward in register (better with the strings doing it) then reaching a sort of stasis with treble piano figuration (doodling would be the hostile characterization of this) and ceases rather than ends

“Tearing Herself Away” is filler music borrowed, I’m fairly certain, from Glass’s “Mishima” soundtrack. It develops some arpeggio-like chords (I forget what chords that are rolled by the hand rather than struck simultaneously are called. John?)

The longest track is the final one. I wouldn’t say it develops in a melodic sense, put it gains in volume and speed and then slows down (reduces orchestral forces in the soundtrack recording), and then resurges with two four-note figures differing in the top note (that is repeating the same first three chords) and varying some in tempo before subsiding into arpeggios played rapidly. (I’d say that this track also ceases rather than ends.)

The whole score sounds like late-1990s Philip Glass without any really abrasive sections (as there are, for instance, in his music for “Koyanasquatsi” and “Glassworks”) and with nothing as outstandingly gossamerly beautiful as “Facades” from “Glassworks” or the tenor solos from “Satyagraha.” There are cascades in slow motion and cascades in faster motion, lots of arpeggios, and often very repetitious bass lines (taken over for solo piano from the orchestral part of the soundtrack which was written for piano with orchestra and string quartet). I consider the generally soothing sound good background music for writing or for postcoital drifting.

The soundtrack was nominated for a 2002 Oscar and the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Soundtrack Album.

I feel that the music is simple enough without being simplified and denuded of orchestral color (bleached?). Michael Riesman, Mr. Glass’ longtime musical director, producer, and (I think) featured pianist of “The Hours” soundtrack understands Glass’s intentions and varies tempi not at all (not audibly at least). Riesman’s recording is not a suite from the movie, but solo piano rendition for the same tracks as the soundtrack recording.

Riesman is a skilled pianist, particularly a masterful Glass performer, and there are no serious questions of authenticity, given the composer’s involvement with the rescoring and the long association of Glass and Riesman, but the question “Why?” still arises? What is gained by a solo piano transcription of a piano and orchestra fantasia? I prefer the string palette that the soundtrack includes, so this recording turns out to be another take on the score of a well-received movie soundtrack that adds no music and can be said to subtract some (though not any cuts).

In contrast the recent recordings of the scores for “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Elmer Bernstein) and “Doctor Zhivago” (Maurice Jarré) add music written but not used in the movies. Those for “Mockingbird” and “Romeo and Juliet” (Nino Rota) and the music for MGM epics written by Miklos Rosza add to the size of the orchestra

The soundtrack disc seems a good introduction to Glass at his least threatening, though both within the movies and as soundtrack albums to listen to I prefer “Mishima” and “Kundun” and the Hopi choruses from “Koyanasqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi” (and among the operas, without question, “Satyagraha”; I’ve slammed his most recent and totally unoriginal opera, The Voyage; I also especially like the Naxos disc with Glass’s violin concerto played by Adele Anthony (much better than the premiere recording of it played by Gidon Kremer)). A movie just opening most places (and in award contention at least for Judi Dench’s performance) that has a soundtrack by Glass is “Notes on a Scandal.” His soundtrack for “The Truman Show” won some awards, but I don’t remember what it sounds like.

(The 80-year-old composer, whose skillas a pianist are less than those required by his music was in town [San Francisco] performing some of his shorter chamber works last weekend.)


©2007, 2018, Stephen O. Muray




Virginia Woolf (6) A Room of One’s Own

I  got around to reading A Room of Ones Own, which I have owned for decades. I thought the point was already in the title, knowing that what Woolf thought was needed for women to read was not just an unshared room with a lockable door but also dependable (unearned by their labor) 500 pounds a year (<$20K now).


Education and being able to get out and about would make for a wider range than domestic novels focused on courting and marriage. Woolf brought up the limitations on Emily Bronte several times, but unless I missed it, did not refer to her sister(s). Woolf has to admit the greatness of Jane Austen and George Eliot, though seeing both as constrained by the restrictions on women. And she noted that all the great English poets, except for Yeats, who died very young, had some inheritances and education.

In wishing that women could get beyond novel-writing, it seems to me that Woolf overlooked a number of women who wrote insightfully about places far beyond the British isles.

I think she mentioned pioneer Gothic novelist Ann Radcliff, but not Clara Reeve, or Mary Shelley’s enduring Frankenstein, which certainly reached beyond the domestic sphere of women. Nor did she mention the pioneering female travel writers such as Isabelle Bird (Hawai’I, Colorado, Malaya West and East Asia), Mary Kingsley (1897-99), Edith Durham (Balkans, 1904-28), Hester Stanethroep (Middle East,1846) Alexandra David-Néele (whose My Journey to Lhasa had only appeared in 1927), Gertrude Bell (the Middle East, 1907-) , Annette Mekin (Turkistan, Siberia, Japan, Charlotte Mansfield (Rhodesia, 1911-16), or Lady Mary Montagu’s Turkish Letters (published in 1737-38; she also wrote poetry). Bird inherited money. Neele bought a house in 1928. Fanny Bullock Workman (lgeria, Himalayas, 1895-1916), Alexin Tinne (Sudan and Central Africa, 1863-69).


Woolf would not know of Nella Larsen, whose novels came out in 1928 and 1929, and Zora Neale Hurston’s were still in the future. I don’t think that either of them, nor Loraine Hansberry (before “A Raisin in the Sun” opened on Broadway) had lockable rooms of their own or the steady support of the equivalent of 500 pounds. Hurston had a patroness, and Hansberry was supported by her husband, though. Larsen went to Fisk and worked as nurse (taking a sabbatial to write Quicksand).

Woolf mentioned Murasaki, but not the whole set of Heian female writers, the only Heian writers of any lasting interest to readers. I don’t think they had lockable rooms or much privacy to write, though financial support from courts, fathers, husbands.

Of Nobel laureates Kipling and Galsworthy, Woolf wrote that “it is not only that they celebrate male virtue, enforce male values and describe the world of men; it is that the emotion with which these books are permeated is to a woman incomprehensible”, “crude and immature” (102). The Light That Failed? It is a love story, even with military interludes. I wonder about Maugham (not the Asheden stories or the later The Razors Edge, but “Rain” and “The Letter”, The Painted Veil, the later Up at the Villa and Of Human Bondaeg, each with prominent female characters). Forster she does not mention (nor her companion at the two lectures, Vita Sackville-West). Sterne she sees as androgynous! Surprisingly, she thought that “the impulse for autobiography may be spent” (for women, 79) in 1929 (!)

“Why are women so much more interesting to men than men are to women?” she asked (based on cataloging contemporary book titles). (27-28) She said that women did not write books about men (though there are male characters whom I find credible—as well as important—in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Virginia Woolf (5): To the Lighthouse

I don’t think the streams of consciousnesses in either Virginia Woolf’s 1925 Mrs. Dalloway (my favorite) or her 1927  To the Lighthouse (generally regarded as her greatest work)  are the way anyone thinks (maybe Molly Bloom’s at the end of Ulysses are, though I have my doubts about that, too). They do reveal what the characters, mostly Mrs. Ramsey in the first part of To the Lighthouse and Lily Briscoe in the last part think about various things and (mostly) other people.


(cover of first edition)

Part Two is about the summer house in the Hebrides (north of where Woolf’s family summered when she was young, on St. Ives Bay, Cornwall)  as it falls apart after the death of Mrs. Ramsey and two of her eight children (Andrew in WWI, Prue in childbirth; Woolf had four siblings, none of whom died during WWI, three of whom outlived her, plus three half-siblings from her mother’s first marriage), though there is the housekeeper, Mrs. McNab fretting about the decay she cannot block on her own.

Though not having a “comic ending,” the book has something of a happy ending, as Lily completes the picture she first tried to paint in Part One. Though I thought she was a version of Vanessa Bell in Part One, I realized she was more of a self-portrait of the woman artist, albeit one less recognized than either of the Stephens sisters (whose parents are pictured as the Ramseys). More so than the houseguest poet, Augustus Carmichael.

Godrevy_sunset_Dave Taskis.PNG

(the original model of the lighthouse, Godrevy Lighthouse in St. Ives Bay, Cornwall, photo by Dave Taskis from Wikimedia Commons)

Cam(illa) and the resentful James get to the lighthouse with their father in Part Three, also. I think Woolf portrays the two Ramsey males convincingly.  (She wwould say in A Room of One’s Own that women did not write books about men, and the main characters in To the Lighthouse are male; still there are major male characters in the novels from her prime.) The child James desperately wanted to go to the lighthouse, though told the weather (forecast) would not permit it.

I think that Woolf’s best work was done in the six-year period between 1925 and 1931 (Mrs. Dalloway to The Waves), including A Room of One’s Own, which I will take up next. (I have failed to get through Orlando ((1928), twice.)

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

The film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours

The San Francisco Chronicle‘s excellent film critic (Mick LaSalle) asserted that “Director Stephen Daldry employs the wonderful things cinema can do in order to realize aspects of The Hours that Cunningham could only hint at or approximate on the page. The result is something rare, especially considering how fine the novel is, a film that’s fuller and deeper than the book.” This claim would have gotten my attention even if I had not been surprised by how affecting and brilliant the book was.

That review does not elaborate or substantiate the argument that the film is fuller and deeper. LaSalle wrote: “In a novel, playing with time is difficult without getting fey or abstruse, but in a movie, Daldry can do it with ease.” Although I think the second part of this statement is warranted, the first part—and, therefore, the general contrast—is not. I recall a Vargas Llosa novel in which two stories were told in alternative sentences (which I found grating, though not fey or abstruse); Faulkner’s Wild Palms (which the late great cinematographer Conrad Hall wanted to film) and Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (and, indeed, much Latin American fiction) tell two or more stories in alternating chapters. Not to mention stream of consciousness writing darting back and forth between memory and some present situation.


David Hare’s screenplay narrows the times shown to three (bracketed with the day in 1941 on which Virginia Woolf put rocks in her coat pockets and drowned herself that is shown before the opening credits and then again at the end). There is a day in 1923 in which Virginia Woolf (played compellingly by an unrecognizable Nicole Kidman) begins writing Mrs. Dalloway, receives an early visit from her sister Vanessa Bell and three children, and tries to escape back to London, having a confrontation on a railroad platform with her despairing, devoted husband Leonard (Stephen Dillane, who won awards in London and New York in the revival of Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing”). There is a day in 1951 on which a young, pregnant suburban housewife, Laura Brown (played poignantly by Julianne Moore) bakes two cakes for the birthday of her loving husband (a touchingly clueless John C. Reilly) from whom she hides her anguish, is unsettled by a visit from a neighbor who is going into the hospital with possible cancer (Toni Collette bursting out of her dress), and desperately wants to read Mrs. Dalloway. Finally, there is a day in 2001 on which Clarissa is preparing a party in honor of a former lover, Richard (Ed Harris). who has always called her “Mrs. Dalloway” and seems to be suffering from AIDS-related dementia. (Woolf’s heroine is also planning and preparing for a party.)*

The opening jumps back and forth through the starts of these three days for these three women, and, as the film goes along, there are cuts from bells ringing and flowers arriving in the three stories that are “cinematic” in the Eisenstein manner. The mood of anguish is also bridged from era to era by a very obtrusive Phillip Glass score with a repetitious, mournful piano.

The book obviously does not include a musical score (though one could read it to any number of Glass recordings), and there is an immediacy to each scene in contrast to detail having to be built up in writing. But this gets back to the objectivity of the picture in contrast to the subjectivity possible on the page. The backdrop of the rooms can tell the viewer many things about the lives of the characters, but attention easily can drift to extraneous details. It is “natural” to describe one item at a time, whereas close-ups of particular objects is marked and seems “unnatural,” even when choreographed by a master like Michelangelo Antonioni (as in the end of “L’eclisse”), let alone by someone without a whole lot of visual imagination like Stephen Daldry.

Besides cutting from narrative to narrative, films allow fluid shots (tracking and panning). However, there is very little of this in Stephen Daldry’s film “The Hours.” The camera is mostly static, and the film-makers over-rely on close-ups (though I will readily grant that the juxtaposition of close-ups near the end between the septuagenarian-made-up Moore talking and Meryl Streep’s bravura wordless acting in reaction shots is awe-inspiring).

It seems to me that the book is deeper in establishing some of the other characters, particularly Lewis (Jeff Daniels in a puzzlingly implausible turn), Clarissa’s daughter (Claire Danes) and partner (Allison Janney) and in filling in the relationship thirty years earlier of Richard, Clarissa, and Lewis. I wonder if what is said in Clarissa’s apartment during the film makes sense to viewers who have not read the novel. Similarly, I wonder if what is shown of Virginia Woolf with her sister and with her husband adds up for (makes sense to) someone unfamiliar with her situation (especially anyone who fails to register that the drowning was in 1941, not later in 1923).

Hare and Daltrey took to heart the exhortation “Show, don’t tell,” and Kidman and Dillane do very well what they are given to do, but it seems to me that the force of their portrayal rests more on familiarity from outside the movie’s frame with the characters than on what the script calls upon them to do. I don’t think (/recall) that everything about the Woolfs is forced into one day in the book. Certainly Mrs. Dalloway was not written in a day, and there is more about (not to mention of!) Mrs. Dalloway in Cunningham’s novel than in the film. Moreover, the echoes of Woolf in Richard are more audible in the book than in the movie. It’s hard for Woolf to start writing, but one of the major themes of the book, the anguish about the gap between what intention and execution in writing ( “one always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get on paper” and knowing the odds against immortality are very, very high) is missing. The figures on the screen seem wracked by psychopathology, not casualties of impossible artistic quests. (Yeah, yeah, I know one could argue that “Vissi d’arte” is in-itself psychopathology, but don’t try to cure me of romanticizing the quest to get it right when one doesn’t even know with any certainty what “it” is!)


(Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf)

What Laura Brown wants is more obscure on screen than on the page. I did not get the impression from the book that she was lesbian, that her problem was wanting to love a woman instead of her husband, son, and unborn daughter. The movie seemed reductionist both for Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Woolf. (Not that there was no incestuous tangle in Woolf’s psychobiography, but both passionate kisses elicited laughter from a San Francisco audience, one which I think is not unfamiliar with representations of same-sex love.)

Partnered to a woman, Clarissa apparently has things “more together, even if she has occasional doubts about the meaningfulness of her well-organized life and successful career (as an editor). I don’t think that the three heroines form three eras have the same clinical depression. Despite her doubts Clarissa has doubt, rather than being a continuation of female depression, the third variation has the male (writer) in the anguished slot, and Clarissa is in the slot occupied by the husbands in the other two variations: caring but unable to supply what the other one wants or to save them from their anguish. (There is also one exception in which one of the depressed characters saves herself and does not feel the regret she is supposed to feel.)

There is much that is impressive in the movie “The Hours,” including superlative acting in most parts (except Jeff Daniels’s; Ed Harris also seems off to me, still engaged with Jackson Pollock’s demons, and the boy playing his earlier incarnation is only adequate, but the husbands perplexed by their wives’ unhappiness played by the currently ubiquitous John C. Reilly and by Stephen Dillane are fine). Fine actresses (and actors) illustrate the many characters and “events” in the book. Both film and book are more evocative of feelings and eras than narrative. Though it is relatively short, the book is deeper, and I have to reach the familiar verdict that “The book is better,” as much as there is to admire in the movie, including some memorable, intense scenes (the Woolfes on the train platform, Toni Collette’s drop-in with Julianne Moore, Clarissa’s dropping by early to pick up Richard, and Streep listening to Moore) in which outstanding actors more than excel. There’s also memorable performances by water to admire. (And a soundtrack that strikes me as both inferior and less fitting than other Glass soundtracks, e.g., for “Mishima” and “Kundun.”)

*I’d like to know why Laura Brown was reading Mrs. Dalloway. The Bloomsbury industry and the transformation of Woolf into a feminist icon occurred later (in time for Richard and Clarissa’s college daze). My impression the books that were considered part of the modernist canon, ca. 1951, were The Waves and To the Lighthouse.

I also want to add that updating the party to 2001 doesn’t work very well for anyone familiar with the history of AIDS and HIV-treatment for insured Americans. Richard’s physical plight (and Ed Harris does not look especially sickly) is more plausible in the mid-1990s than in 2001.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

(this is the fourth installment of my musings on Virginia Woolf’s work)


Virginia Woolf (3): Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours

Although I greatly admired and was moved by Michael Cunningham’s first novel, A Home at the End of the World, I was put off by the length, the title, and by the cover of his second, the roman fleuve Flesh and Blood. And I was slow to pick up The Hours. Being crowned with a Pulitzer Prize did not particularly encourage me.

Did I want to read a novel in which Virginia Wolf writing Mrs. Dalloway in 1923 rural England is intercut with Mrs. Dalloway preparing to throw a party, and with a story of a woman (Laura Brown) reading the novel in 1949 Los Angeles while her momma’s boy son helps her make a cake for her husband’s birthday party, and with a present-day story in which one character (Richard) calls another (whose first name is Clarissa) “Mrs. Dalloway,” and she is also planning a party (in late-1990s Manhattan) for him? The ripples from Virginia Wolf sounded so schematic. And starting the book with Wolf’s (1941) suicide seemed very heavy-handed when I finally picked up the book to read.


However, I read on and was surprised to learn that I really did want to read a novel about Virginia Wolf writing Mrs. Dalloway, etc. For one thing, Cunningham is a superb prose stylist, invoking sense perceptions with beautifully precise ways. A reviewer should not reveal what the eventual payoff of the Wolf/Mrs. Dalloway resonances is, but not only is there one, but even the shadow cast by Wolf’s suicide note and drowning herself is justified (and that is not an easy task to set oneself!)

To be able to read Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Brown has to check into a hotel, so The Hours is particularly good hotel reading, making one feel lucky to have a place to read and to regard hotels as refuges for readers. Though I think that reading the novel in a hotel augments its pleasures, there are plenty of pleasures in it for reading in other locations. The structure quickly becomes seductive.

I also found many of the characters moving, especially Louis, who had been the isolated point of a mid-1960s attempt at a “free love” triangle with Richard and Clarissa, and Clarissa’s concern for Richard (who is dying of AIDS and about to receive a prize for his lifework, the most celebrated part of which is about Clarissa).

Although I think that Virginia Wolf would be pleased by the homage of making her novel so central to another more than three-quarters of a century later, I can sympathize with her fretting that “one always has a better book in one’s mind than one can manage to get on paper.” And Richard’s imminent mortality is further darkened by the knowledge that there is no guarantee that his work will continue to be read as Wolf’s has: “There are so many books. Some of them, a handful are good, and of that handful only a few survive.”

Beyond Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours (Wolf’s working title for what became Mrs. Dalloway) made me think of another gay writer’s relatively recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Three Tall Women, because there are three female protagonists. On the page more than on the stage, Cunningham had to make the three women credible from inside (internal monologs mostly, with some dialog). In the current “authenticity” worshipping zeitgeist, a man writing a woman (let alone three women) from the inside is suspect (though, fittingly, Richard wrote of Clarissa rather than Louis or himself).

As if there weren’t already a surfeit of intertextualities in The Hours, Vanessa Redgrave, who may be the celebrity Clarissa glimpses while out shopping and who has played “Mrs. Dalloway” is going to appear in the film of The Hours and, like Richard, Cunningham won a major prize for his novel about Richard’s reaction to a literary prize and the preparations for Clarissa’s party celebrating it. So it goes.

As I said, the denouement brings the three storylines together in surprising and fulfilling ways. Although reading The Hours will inspire most readers to read or reread Mrs. Dalloway. I don’t think that more than a vague sense of who Virginia Wolf or what happens in Mrs. Dalloway is necessary to enjoy and be moved by reading The Hours. The Hours is a great, reflective book, though not of great length. Rarely there is a thought or feeling that seems underdeveloped. Cunningham creates rounded characters with an economy of words and has built a complex edifice in which the characters can breathe and move readers. It seems to me that what he wrote is as close to perfection as a novel—an irremediably messy form—can be.

©2002, 2018, Stephen O. Murray


Virginia Woolf (2) 1997 movie adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf’s first great novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) with its multiple streams of consciousness would seem a canonical modernist work ill-suited for adaptation to the screen. However, the highly disjunctive text proceeds in ways very similar to the montage of jump-cuts championed by Soviet film directors. (I have no idea what, if any cinema Woolf was familiar with.


Although the novel has very little plot, the cinematic jump-cuts of the text work even better on screen than on the page. Credit for this can be shared between the 1997 film’s editor Michiel Reichwein, director Marleen Gorris (Antonia’s Line, The Luzhin Defence) and award-winning actress and co-creator of “Upstairs/Downstairs” (Dame) Eileen Atkins. The director, scenarist, and star (Vanessa Redgrave in the title role) also manage to transport from page to screen the interior monologue of Clarissa Dalloway. Those three and two companions of Clarissa’s youth who unexpectedly turn up the day of the party she is showing, Peter Walsh who never got over having his heart broken by Clarissa’s choosing the safety of marriage to Richard Dalloway, and Lady Rosseter, with whom (as Sally Selton) the young Clarissa was more in love than she was with her intimate friend Peter or the man whom she would marry. The actors portraying the worn-down, older Peter (Michael Kitchen, Doyle of “Doyle’s War” and the king of “To Play the King”) and even more transformed former Sally Selton (Sarah Badel) and still-vague older Clarissa (Redgrave) make the transformations from their golden (OK, verdant) last summer of youth very, very visible. Sally, transformed into Lady Rosseter and the mother of five strapping sons, is the only one who seems content with the changes from the yearning, hoping youths to the elderly observers of life.

The more passionate young incarnations (Natascha McElhone as Clarissa, Lena Headey as Sally, Alan Cox as Peter) are different characters as the camera shows them maneuvering—and being outmaneuvered by the already stolid Richard Dalloway (the young one played by Robert Portal, the long-married Member of Parliament who is never going to make it into the Cabinet, by John Standing). There are continuities of temperament from the young to the old incarnations, but the physical differences are more striking on the screen than on the page.

What is lost in adapting the novel for the screen is the subjectivity (streams of consciousness) of the characters other than Mrs. Dalloway. Peter and Lady Rossiter, Peter and Clarissa, Clarissa by herself, and even Richard Dalloway recollect the summer that ended with Clarissa’s accepting Richard’s marriage proposal, but with screen flashbacks (and the objectivity of the camera), they all seem to be remembering everything as it was, not selectively and subjectively distorted as the book’s character’s memories (flashbacks). That is, they all seem to have direct access to unmediated, uninterpreted events of that summer. The reader of the book knows which character is recalling what. The viewer of the movie cannot easily guess whose memory is being displayed on screen.

The exception, the most searing flashbacks and hallucinations of events being repeated, is a character whom first Mrs. Dalloway and then Peter glimpse on the day of her party, but do not know (though the party will be marred for Mrs. Dalloway by hearing about), Septimus Warren Smith (played by Rupert Graves, who has frequently appeared in films of that era, including “Maurice,” “A Room with a View,” and “A Handful of Dust”). Septimus is haunted by memories of a friend being blown up during the last days of the First World War (five years before the narrative’s present day). That scene is the very first one in the movie. Septimus is suffering what was then called “delayed shellshock” and now would be labeled acute “post-traumatic stress” mixed with acute survivor’s guilt. His subjectivity is not conveyed by voice-overs as Mrs. Dalloway’s is, but the viewer sees the hallucinations he does, and his thoughts about not being able to feel are expressed aloud in the movie.

I think that the book is less about the title character than about surviving (Mrs. Dalloway) and not surviving (Septimus) guilt about the past and the depressive lows of manic-depressive mental illness. By starting with the most traumatic of Septimus’s war-time experiences, the movie seems to be headed for making Septimus as central as Clarissa, but I’d say that the movie is more about regret. (Peter’s, Clarissa’s, Septimus’s, and to some extent Septimus’s Italian wife, milliner Rezia (played with foreboding and helplessness by Amelia Bullmore).


Vanessa Redgrave’s Mrs. Dalloway starts out positively giddy. I thought the title character of the book was fighting off an undertow of depression not unlike her creator. The movie introduces a manic phase, too, with the euphoria about the beautiful day as Mrs. Dalloway strides out to buy flowers. She is not manic during the party, though what she is feeling is quite different from what she is saying as an attentive hostess. After she hears about the shellshocked soldier, she sinks into a depression, but, unlike Septimus, survives it. During the day before the part, Septimus has both manic and depressive episodes (that is, very rapid oscillation).

Many screen adaptations of canonized novels illustrate them prettily. The adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway transports everything of importance about the characters, the events and memories of the day of the Dalloway part, and the party itself to the screen. To an unusual extent (contrast the mess of the screen transfer of another novel with multiple streams of consciousness, The Sound and Fury to the screen), the spirit of the book made it across the change in medium. For all the excellent acting, costume and set decoration, photography (Sue Gibson), etc., “Mrs. Dalloway” is more a worthy movie than great cinema. But because it is a very cinematic adaptation that I can find no fault with, I give it a five-star rating. I do not think it is a great movie, but it is a superlative recreation of a great novel, that in some ways improves on the novel (by making the changes in the late-middle-age characters from their youthful avatars painfully palpable). It also does not contain any extraneous material, which I would not (in fact did not) say about the novel.

I still have to pronounce the book better, because the book has multiple subjectivities, and, because Vanessa Redgrave is so incandescent (even without monopolizing the interior monologues) that it is difficult for others to register with viewers (in the film’s present day; Natascha McElhone’s junior Clarissa stands out, too, but the other youth have a better chance to register on the viewer, since all are being shown and the viewer is not privy to what they are thinking beyond reading their looks). The star throwing the balance of an adapted off kilter is common. Redgrave does it without monopolizing screen time or upstaging anyone.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Virginia Woolf (1) Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

Originally published in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway is the first of Virginia Woolf’s widely acknowledged masterpieces, a canonical work of high modernism employing streams of consciousness (streams of different characters’). The novel takes place entirely on a pleasant summer day and evening in which Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a gives a party that includes England’s prime minister, various cabinet ministers, and other prominent Londoners, including physician Sir William Bradshaw. The morning before the party, “the path not taken,” Peter Walsh, the suitor Clarissa rejected to marry the solid/stolid Richard Dalloway unexpectedly appears, back from India to arrange a divorce. Peter still carries a torch for Clarissa and/or has never fully recovered from being rejected. His visit unleashes remembrances of summers past on both his and Clarissa’s parts. Then, at the party, Sally Seton, to whom Clarissa was erotically attached at the same time as Richard and Peter were vying for her hand in marriage, appears, having married well, produced multiple offspring, impatient with the pretentiousness of Clarissa’s party and happy to have Peter to talk to.


Other consciousness sampled by the novelist include a resentful religious fanatic, Miss Kilman [!], who is alienating the affections of Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth, a shell-shocked World War I survivor of the trench warfare (Septimus Warren Smith) and Lucrezia, the woman he married in Italy and brought back and who is very worried about her deeply traumatized husband. Clarissa is, and seemingly long has been a bit abstracted from the motions she goes through as the ornamental wife of a member of parliament who throws elegant parties and mingles with the political and economic elite. She seems superficial to Peter and Sally and not altogether present to herself. She is not introspective, but vaguely feels that her life lacks meaning and purpose, that her husband doesn’t really know her, and that her daughter is slipping away into the religious mania of Miss Kilman.

Septimus is excruciatingly painfully aware that he has lost any capacity to experience any emotion. By the time his closest friend, Evans, was killed, “Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognising that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably. The war had taught him. It was sublime. He had gone through the whole show, friendship, European War, death, had won promotion, was till under thirty and was bound to survive. He was right there. The last shells missed him. He watched them explode with indifference. . . . There was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know.”

The dead were with him—or he was with them, a dead man walking and sitting in the sun. Septimus is (in my view) the central character, even if he can only make a slight ripple on the still (stagnant?) pool of the title character’s consciousness. (I don’t think that it is a plot-spoiler to note that Septimus and Clarissa never meet.)


Woolf, 1927)

It is possible, however, that it is this reader who is more interested in post-traumatic stress disorder (as new cases are proliferating in the military occupation of Iraq) than in Clarissa’s social set and wistful regrets about having taken the safe path of marrying Richard rather than Woolf having intended this bass line as so foundational. Plus the resonances of knowing about Woolf’s own depression and eventual suicide (not least from their representations in The Hours on page and screen). Still, it seems that, recovering from physical illness, Clarissa Dalloway has a milder form of despair about her inability to connect with or care about other people and is a sister (in spirit) to Septimus in his anguish.

Even if my emphasis on the Septimus thread in Woolf’s complex tapestry is idiosyncratic, it is still impressive that she could make a male character whose life experiences were radically different from her own cloistered domestic life so compelling. (It is also interesting that another female novelist, Pat Barker, produced the most compelling and extensive portrayal of Word War I shell shock, using and going beyond the records left by Robert Graces, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owens, all of whom are characters in Barker’s exceptional trilogy.)

The portrayal of malevolent medicine, in the person of Sir William Bradshaw, also stands out—again, perhaps in part from knowing too much about the author’s long experience with alienating alienists. Of the fashionable physician, she wrote “He swooped; he devoured. He shut people up. It was this combination of decision and humanity that endeared Sir William so greatly to the relations of his victims.” Whew! Mrs. Woolf could cut and Sir William is not the only character she and/or Clarissa view with some asperity. That is, there is some social comedy in a more bitter than Jane Austen extension of the Austen tradition in the swirling streams of consciousness modernist novel.

It seems that what I have chosen to quote includes sentences of almost Hemingwayesque brevity. There are many others than twist and turn, and abrupt (unmarked) shifts from one character’s stream of consciousness to another.

The book is not at all the “blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James’s characterization of human consciousness). It is carefully constructed, moving through one day and evening with memories and triggers of memories that are plausibly within what the characters might think (insofar as the characters can be detached from the texts that invents and animates them!). In my view there are some eddies of observation and memory that did not need to be included (Lady Bruton’s in particular [and she is another character with a too-obvious name]), but this may be only a symptom of my attenuated attention span. The edition I have runs 293 pages with relatively large typeface.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray