Vanessa Redgrave plays the title role of Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway, wife of a successful politician. The film takes place primarily in London after WWI. Mrs. Dalloway is planning a party, but her life is thrown in disarray when she receives a visit from Peter Walsh (Michael Kitchen), a man who once loved her. She has come to think of herself purely in terms of her husband, so such a return of individuality is a shock to her.
There are several flashbacks to when they were young adults. Clarissa (here played by Natascha McElhone) is being wooed by both the wild Peter (Alan Cox) and the stiff Richard Dalloway (Robert Portal). Should she choose security or danger? Judging from the title, it's not that surprising a decision.
Intercut with the action is a completely unrelated story of a shellshocked WWI soldier. Septimus Smith (Rupert Graves) has been mentally troubled since the war. His suicidal tendencies have baffled his wife, Rezia (Amelia Bullmore), who reluctantly seeks help.
The connection between these two stories is tenuous at best. The strongest parallel I could draw was that Mrs. Dalloway had been shellshocked in her own way, but coped with it differently. However, if that was the intended message, it is awfully muffled here.
In fact, the film flirts with several ideas, but it is much too tentative in its approach. For example, there's a possible romantic interest between Clarissa and her friend Sally (Lena Headey), but it is unclear if this exists, or if there's much thought behind it at all.
As the film progresses, it slowly gains confidence. By the time we reach Mrs. Dalloway's party, everything finally clicks. With a swirling combination of Mrs. Dalloway's mental commentary and some dizzying camerawork, the film sweeps us into a delightful stream-of-consciousness narrative.
But, overall, the film has difficulty overcoming its rather dry tone. If it proceeded with some early experimentation, some sort of energy might have brought it to life. But in the end, like its title character, the film chose the safe and timid way out...at the cost of its identity.
[PG-13 - emotional elements and brief nudity] (First Look)