From her body of work to her personal life and the overall state of her genius mind, Virginia Woolf has always been a figure of fascination in the world of literature and the arts. This fascination has filtered through to film in many different forms on many different occasions, most notably the big screen adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Hours. Based on a 1992 play by Eileen Atkins, this new addition to the catalogue hinted at being an interesting one.
Set across the 1920s, Vita & Virginia uses real love letter correspondence to recount the years long romance between writers Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki). With both women enjoying strikingly contemporary marriages for the time, Vita and Virginia’s relationship is allowed to blossom, but as the complications of class, wider society, Vita’s promiscuity and Virginia’s sensitive mental health provide obstacles, the lovers begin to find themselves in a precarious position.
It’s fair to say that Vita & Virginia is the kind of film that, for the most part, gets by on its intriguing and engrossing storyline rather than its technical prowess. The lives and times of these women are something that interests me personally, and I think that is going to be the thing that makes a big difference as to one’s overall enjoyment of the picture. From a general filmmaking standpoint, Vita & Virginia is a fairly run of the mill biopic that takes very few risks in its story telling. It takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of their history from initial meeting, to correspondence lead courtship, to consummation, to the defining landmark in the relationship; Woolf’s groundbreaking, gender bending 1928 novel Orlando of which Sackville-West was the inspiration.
Alongside all of the obvious obstacles that a same sex relationship in the 1920s produced, what is interesting is that the film prefers to explore the notion of two people drawn to one another, yet ultimately not being compatible as partners despite a powerful, meaningful connection. One might assume that a story of two women falling in love in this era might be preoccupied with the scandalous side of the relationship, but Vita & Virginia is much more interested in the personal impacts and feelings of the lovers, producing a much more delicate and intricate narrative compared to one that only cares about the shock value of a lesbian love affair.
The quality and rhythm of the dialogue is something that stands out to me as being impressive, but the actual threads of the narrative don’t quite weave together as satisfyingly as they could. This may very well be down to the fact that the film has chosen to condense a decade long relationship into something much shorter for cinematic purposes. Understandable, but no doubt a little detrimental to the finished article.
Far and away the film’s greatest asset is the performances of its two leading ladies. As Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Debicki gives us an altogether different take on the legendary writer compared to Nicole Kidman’s Oscar winning performance in The Hours, but one that feels just as fitting. Debicki uses every inch of her 6′ 3” inch frame to depict a Woolf that feels uncomfortable and detached in many areas of her life, and there is an enigmatic awkwardness about her performance that you can’t quite take your eyes off.
About as far from awkwardness as one can get, Gemma Arterton is ravishing as the confident, charismatic Vita Sackville-West. As the initial perusing force in the relationship, Arterton dazzles with a beguiling offensive after setting Debicki’s Woolf in her sights. On paper the story could read rather predatory, but the sheer chemistry and connection that the actresses share on screen turns the story into a captivating, flirtatious game. The bewitching qualities that Arterton injects into Vita might get her the girl, but they also lose her the girl too, and both her and Debicki are an engaging pleasure to watch as the complications of the relationship unfold.
A handful of enjoyable supporting roles are given by the likes of Isabella Rossellini, Emerald Fennell, Rupert Penry-Jones and Peter Ferdinando, but ultimately the film lives and dies on its central pairing. Thankfully, they give two really outstanding leading performances despite contending with a mostly lacklustre telling of their tale.
Overall, Vita & Virginia is a drama that I very much enjoyed, desire being able to recognise its flaws. You will either be captivated and swayed by the chemistry and charisma of the leads, or you will be left cold by the somewhat flat nature of the picture as a whole. I happen to be in the camp of the former, and as I result will probably continue to be more positive about Vita & Virginia than most. If nothing else, absolutely worth seeing both Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton doing some of their most impressive work to date.