Vita and Virginia

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Chanya Button

Starring

Elizabeth Debicki Gemma Arterton Isabella Rossellini

Anticipation.

A look at the formative romantic life of a British literary legend.

Enjoyment.

The intention is pure and individual performances are strong, but it just doesn’t come together.

In Retrospect.

The soundtrack kills it.

A handsome if underpowered period drama on literary lesbianism and the early career of Virginia Woolf.

Okay now, keep up: Vita & Virginia is a film directed by Chanya Button and inspired by a 1992 one-woman stage play from veteran thesp Dame Eileen Atkins. It is about the pre-fame life of the great impressionist author Virginia Woolf, who is in the arduous midst of mentally formulating her novel, Orlando, itself inspired by her friendship (and more) with Jazz-age writer and humorist Vita Sackville-West.

The script takes as one of its primary sources the private correspondence between these two women, depicting Woolf (played by Elizabeth Debicki) as almost debilitated by her own astronomic standards, while Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton), acts the misty-eyed cheerleader, happy to spin off saucy prose for a mass audience.

The story fleshes out the pair’s simmering relationship, as Vita starts out as a bobbysoxer superfan to Virginia’s self-lacerating genius, then draws her from her skin, becomes a secret lover and then, finally, a necessary life coach. The film is somewhat risk averse, leaning too heavily on fruity literary monologues that come across as nakedly emotional confessions of suppressed desire wrapped up in a garish bow.

Both actors give it their all, but it sorely lacks for a base chemistry. It sometimes feels as if, tonally, the two leads are pulling in slightly different directions, with Arterton opting for a more clipped, theatrical delivery, and Debicki going for full bore emo-method. The male characters, meanwhile, are well-meaning satellites, and don’t get much of a look-in.

A talented production team pool their considerable resources to bring a tinge of aristo art deco lavishness to the visuals, with extra attention paid to the costumes which are not only beautifully tailored, but beautifully worn by the cast. The stark contrast between boudoirs and tea rooms that are bathed in milky light, and the shadowy nooks in which Vita and Virginia carry out their affair, makes for a powerful visual motif.

Yet much good will is squandered by some mood-killing touches, most prominently a score that can only be described as candle shop electronica. It’s strange how much damage a seemingly minor cosmetic touch like that could wreak, but it really does bring so much of this earnestly romantic film crashing down with it.

Published 5 Jul 2019

Tags: Chanya Button Elizabeth Debicki Gemma Arterton Isabella Rossellini

Anticipation.

A look at the formative romantic life of a British literary legend.

Enjoyment.

The intention is pure and individual performances are strong, but it just doesn’t come together.

In Retrospect.

The soundtrack kills it.

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