It is London, June 13th, 1923, and Clarissa Dalloway, in her late middle age and recovering from some kind of heart ailment, is about to hold a party. As she prepares for her party, Clarissa remembers--in flashbacks--the time when she chose to marry the wealthy politician Richard Dalloway over her more adventurous relationships with Peter Walsh and her possibly-lesbian friend Sally Seton.

Clarissa does not seem unhappy, just intensely aware that in choosing one kind of life for herself she has had to relinquish the chance of others. It seems that she has planned the party as a way to affirm the choice she did make, but it turns out to do more, to suggest that the other possibilities were not lost after all.

Another character's experience of June 13th, 1923 is also told: Septimus Smith, suffering from what we'd now call post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of his experience in the trenches of World War I, is about to be hospitalized by his physician, Sir William Bradshaw, a specialist in "shellshock." To avoid this, he commits suicide by jumping from a window. The two plots come together when Sir William, a guest at Mrs. Dalloway's party, describes Septimus's death.

For Clarissa, his story disrupts the careful balance of her perfect evening. She goes up to her own window and for a moment, it seems, contemplates suicide too. But she returns downstairs to dance with her husband. Sally cuts in, leaving Clarissa free to talk, at last, with Peter. The unspoken threat of Clarissa's illness, as well as our knowledge of Virginia Woolf's own suicide, remind us of her fragility, yet the film leave us with the exhilarating sense of encountering a woman who is complete.


The subplot about Septimus Smith is the most obviously medical aspect of the film: Smith dies not because of his psychological illness, but because of the uncomprehending response of his doctors. His suicide is portrayed both as an appalling failure of society and as a courageous and necessary act. Juxtaposed with Mrs. Dalloway's apparently far less eventful day, Septimus's story makes it appear that the young Clarissa's decision to marry Dalloway determined the course of her life almost as surely as jumping out of window would--until the end, when we see that in fact she has carried with her all the alternatives she seemed to have rejected.

The film, which is a remarkably faithful translation of Woolf's novel, offers a subtle exploration of memory, regret, and hope in the life narrative of a woman whose life may be almost over (not just because of her illness but because, one character implies, there is not much left for her, the menopausal mother of an adult daughter--certainly less than there is for a man her age).


Screenplay by Eileen Atkins, based on the novel by Virginia Woolf.

Primary Source

BMG Video