Vita & Virginia, directed by Chanya Button, is a film about one of the definitive Bloomsbury love affairs, that between literary lion Virginia Woolf and popular novelist Vita Sackville-West. Starring Gemma Arterton as Vita and Elizabeth Debicki as Virginia, it depicts the trajectory of their relationship in broad brushstrokes while shimmering with period detail, from the liberal use of hard r’s in the dialogue to Vita’s tailored high-waisted breeches and dinky motor car. The interiors evoke a bygone world of formal love trysts conducted among tropical plants in public conservatories. Meanwhile an electronica soundtrack by Isobel Waller-Bridge surges and bubbles at significant moments in the story, creating a contemporary and fun counterpoint to the 1920s glitter.
Drawing on the women’s letters to each other, the film intersperses the action with arresting straight-to-camera recitals of those letters. Arterton’s Vita, confident, playful and a little theatrical, makes a fine counterpoint to Debicki’s floating and cerebral Virginia. The chemistry between the two leads is visible, but the script pushes the actors talk out their feelings rather than merely acting them. Debicki’s Virginia, ever preoccupied by the process by which she extracts meaning from life, is rarely shown letting go and being amorous or even just a little silly with Vita, barring the obligatory sex scene. Only when Vita first sees her do we glimpse her through a more intimate lens and get a sense of Vita’s entrancement as she watches her dancing, free for a moment of her incessant thinking about feeling. Similarly Vita gazes at Virginia amorously and talks about her fervently but isn’t seen through Virginia’s eyes, the love object of a sensitive and passionate woman. More narrative space could have been given to the private moments that make every love affair unique. At times in the film, based on the play by Eileen Atkins, it feels like you’re watching the characters as if on stage, not seeing what they’re seeing.
Vita & Virginia runs fast because the central affair arcs so smoothly, without any emphasis falling on any one part of it. Their relationship spanned years, but here it feels as if it lasted a few months – none of the characters in the film seem to age. The sense of time passing, which brings a melancholy and depth to even the happiest of love affairs, is therefore absent, adding to the film’s bubbly synthetic feel.
The complexities of open relationships in bisexual and asexual marriages are explored through the women’s husbands. Leonard Woolf (Peter Ferdinando) and Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) stoically suffer their spouses’ interest in each other, but the most dramatic scenes are between Vita and and her mother, played by Isabella Rossellini. As the voice of the non-artistic, convention-bound world that Virginia, but not Vita, has escaped, she is the closest the film gets to providing an antagonist to love. Vita’s restlessness is the other antagonist, but this character trait is introduced so casually that it hardly seems to matter.
A visual feast, the film never quite breaks through the polished surface of the heroines’ relationship to the primal currents below.
By Olympia Zographos
Vita & Virginia is in Select US Theaters 23rd August and Available On VOD from 30th August.