However, what promises to be an intimate look into the scandalous 10 year affair between these famous literary lovers falls flat. Instead of scenes which provide windows into the indefatigable bond between these two women, the film is punctuated with breathless, stagey recitations of letters. Perhaps this is the fault of the film’s source text, Eileen Atkins's 1993 stage play of the same which lifts verbatim passages from the couple's correspondence. This slow-moving suspirance might fare better on stage, but it makes for sluggish action on-screen.
This overall lethargy is a pity because the beginning of the film erupts with a polemical vivacity as Vita (Gemma Arterton) condemns marriage as ‘a prison’ for women on public radio. The head-strong aristocrat is pleased with her burgeoning reputation as both a writer and iconoclast, but is desperate for acceptance by the Bloomsbury Group, the key intellectual and literary cognoscenti of London during the inter-war period. Vita heads to one of their famous bohemian bacchanals where she deliberately runs into Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki).
It seems that Vita couldn’t have picked a better moment to bulldoze into Virginia’s life. Woolf has just authored her landmark novel Mrs. Dalloway, catapulting her into the upper echelons of modern literature, yet throughout her life she endured a life-long struggle with depression which came with a particular vengeance after penning a new work. The film risks romanticising mental illness by presenting Virginia’s hallucinations as spontaneously sprouting flora and fauna with encroach on her sense of reality. However, a particularly harrowing performance given by Debicki which surely announces her as one of today's greatest acting talents as she is left paralysed by a train of thought at a lunch table.
Debicki’s willowy dimensions and enigmatic gaze hypnotically represents the elusive Mrs. Woolf, who speaks only in sagacious incantations. Arterton is also stunning as the arduous Vita who expresses her passion for Virginia with unalloyed rapture. She seems to be one of few who are able to talk the troubled writer down from a ledge. Yet we only get occasional bursts of these laudable performances as most of the actors’ time is taken up frozen in close-ups as they read out letters with dead-pan expressions.
There is also plenty to applaud outside of the acting, such as the well-balanced fluctuation between film locations, from Vita’s opulent 16th century ancestral home to the Woolfs’ more humble basement, the home of Hogarth Press, famous for publishing seminal Modernist texts such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and of course, Vita and Virginia's works. Costume is also achingly sharp and visually renders the two women's contrasting personalities.
Vita is impeccable in ostentatious animal prints and saturated colours whereas Virginia is an ethereal vision in creams and pastels, emulating a woman not quite of this earth. These outfits have a contemporaneous hint about them which works well, but there are glaring moments when this lavish period drama flirts with anachronistic devices and fails. Button has chosen to depict the social whirl of the twenties with a modern twist, introducing pumping EDM created by Isobel Waller-Bridge (sister of Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge) into party scenes which is too jarring to be successful.
For all its faults, it can't be denied the film offers a lot in terms of visual sumptuousness, and the masterful performances of Arterton and Debicki make it immensely difficult to look away.
|What||Vita and Virginia review|
05 Jul 19 – 05 Jul 20, TIMES VARY
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
|Website||Click here for more information|