Vita & Virginia

Yes, everyone knows linen trousers are prone to creases. Photo credit: Thunderbird Releasing
Verdict: 
7/10 - Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki relish in playing lovers in this nicely paced period piece.
Release Date: 
Friday, July 5, 2019
Written by: 

Set in the 1920s, Vita & Virginia explores the love affair between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf.

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The love affair between writer and socialist Vita Sackville-West and famed novelist Virginia Woolf has long fascinated readers and academics.

So, it's interesting that it has taken until 2019 for a film that specifically focuses on the development of their relationship to be released in cinemas, especially as Eileen Atkins's play Vita & Virginia was first performed all the way back in 1992.

Directed by Chanya Button from a screenplay adapted by Atkins, the movie is based on the letters that the titular figures exchanged for years and delves into the life of aristocratic poet and novelist Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton), who though wed to Sir Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones), defies convention by embarking on affairs with women.

Right at the start of the film, she lets her take on a modern marriage be known during a radio interview in which she declares, "I didn't sign the marriage contract, I negotiated one. And I found a great deal more flexibility than I was brought up to expect," and "Independence has no sex."

While Vita and "wickedly brilliant" literary trailblazer Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki), who is married to Leonard Woolf (Peter Ferdinando), originally move in different circles, when their paths do cross, Vita near-instantly decides that the enigmatic and beguiling author must be her next conquest.

In addition to a scintillating and potentially scandalous affair, the two women bond over their careers, and despite coming from vastly different backgrounds find parallels in their struggles and emotionally absent parents.

 

As one can imagine, director Chanya Button isn't afraid to tackle important and relevant themes, such as sexuality, gender, and passion through the two women's connection. 

Vita eventually becomes the muse of one of Virginia's most famous novels, Orlando - featuring a protagonist who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries, meeting the key figures of English literary history.

And predictably, there are a lot of close-ups on faces and long gazes exchanged between the women.

However, less successful are some of the fantasy elements which are deployed to evoke Virginia's well-documented struggles with mental illness, as well as the misty straight-to-camera monologues, and composer Isobel (sister of Phoebe) Waller-Bridge's jarring electro score.

Both stars turn in dedicated performances, with Arterton mastering Vita's brash confidence while delighting in costume designer Lorna Marie Mugan's painstakingly detailed ensembles

Meanwhile, Debicki once again relishes in the opportunity to bare a vulnerable side, with her thin physique emphasised in a way which often gives her a delicate, bird-like quality.

Yes, there are other characters in the film - look out for Isabella Rossellini's Lady Sackville and Emerald Fennell's Vanessa Bell - but it is the exchanges between the two leads where Button's biographical drama truly finds its flow.

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