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There’s something that doesn’t click in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia, an account of the lesbian romance between sparkling socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West and the great evergreen modernist Virginia Woolf. In London of the 1920s, teetering between convention and bohemianism, their open but still scandalous affair is recounted with physicality and atmosphere. Yet in the end, precious little is revealed and one is left with the feeling that the material needed a different kind of treatment to illuminate its protagonists. Coming a long way from her directing bow on the comic road movie Burn Burn Burn, Button has hit on a topic that will draw in both literary and LGBTQ audiences, but it lacks the electricity to go the extra mile theatrically.
While Gemma Arterton’s mischievous, wealthy butterfly Vita is the nominal protag from whose viewpoint the story is told, most eyes will be pinned to the enigmatic Virginia (well played by Elizabeth Debicki in a role originally announced to be Eva Green’s), a highly cultured, introverted writer plagued with debilitating bouts of mental illness that ultimately lead to drowning herself in a river (not in the film). How two such different people could fall in love should have been explained in the screenplay, written by Button and Eileen Atkins after Atkins’ 1993 play. Instead, the screenwriters delight in recounting the steps leading to Virginia’s seduction by the aggressive Vita, who not only awakens her dormant sexuality but tacitly promises her the moon. (Both are married, by the way.) That’s the physical side of their love affair; the romantic part is entrusted to cloying excerpts from their correspondence, giddy variants of “I love you so much!” that one would have preferred not to hear repeated.
Vita is a free-thinking, iconoclastic aristocrat of 30 who announces on public radio that marriage is a prison for women. Being herself a popular writer, she tells her tolerant husband (Rupert Penry-Jones, dashing as diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson) how anxious she is to meet the famous Mrs. Woolf.
Opportunity knocks at a bohemian party in Bloomsbury, the London haunt of the alt-literati. Striking a deliberately odd note, this 1922 costume party has the flavor of a laid-back hippie happening of the 1970s, and the non-period music is only one of its confusing signals. Even though the viewer is as eager as Vita to get a glimpse of the great writer, it’s a puzzling intro. The 40-year-old Virginia is all but unrecognizable as a long-haired blonde beauty in a Little Lord Fauntleroy costume, languidly reciting her stilted, stagey dialogue. Of course, her erudite lines and reflections on life as a wave are more in character once you realize who she is.
She’s in the company of an artistic clique that only comes into focus by and by: her husband Leonard Woolf (Peter Ferdinando), publisher of the Hogarth Press; her artist sister Vanessa Bell (Emerald Fennell) and the gay painter who Vanessa lives with, Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). One can see Vita’s aristocratic free spirit feeling its way through the gloomy rooms and their off-beat occupants, just like the audience. “I want her to admire me,” she admits.
Since this is basically Vita’s story, we see a lot of her. She has the glam wardrobe of a silent movie star but prefers a dandy look in mannish checked pants. Her husband, who is himself bisexual (we catch a quick glimpse of a young man sleeping in his bed), reminds her he relies on her discretion. That’s a tall order for a flamboyant exhibitionist and serial “Sapphist” like Vita.
Arterton is at her most appealing as a firebrand proto-feminist who at one point hotly exclaims she was cheated out of her home because she’s a woman. (The romantic medieval Knole House becomes a favorite trysting place of Vita and Virginia, reminding us that Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando is set here.)
She is only cowed, it seems, by her uber-powerful, ultra-aristo mother, Baroness Sackville, played with wicked cattiness by Isabella Rossellini. She keeps her errant daughter in line with threats to cut off her generous monthly allowance and snatch her children away from her. But Vita continues pursuing the socialist, bohemian writer from Bloomsbury because, as she concedes, “I like things wild and complicated.”
Virginia’s reaction to her courtship is dismissive at first but frantically involved later. When Vita finally gets her into bed in a shadowy, soft-focus scene, she opens the door to a happy, excited period in the writer’s life, and their affair is generously accepted by her husband Leonard as being good for her morale. Virginia had struggled through a long period of insanity 10 years earlier and is shown as still emotionally fragile. A brief return to madness is visualized all too literally as CGI crows swooping down on her, The Birds-style.
But Vita’s affections are only for a season. The final scenes show Virginia triumphing over romantic adversity by writing Orlando, capturing her lover forever in her revolutionary literary portrait of a character who is both man and woman.
Even if the dialogue can sound dull and pretentious (“I’m bewitched by your writing!”), tip-top cinematography and production design keep the atmosphere rocking between Vita’s aristocratic home full of stags’ heads and oil paintings of Sackville ancestors and Virginia and Vanessa’s more homey intellectual digs, punctuated by striking modern art. Vita’s eye-catching wardrobe is designed by Lorna Marie Mugan.
Production companies: Mirror Productions, Blinder Films
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando
Director: Chanya Button
Screenwriters: Chanya Button, Eileen Atkins
Producers: Katie Holly, Evangelo Kioussis
Executive producers: Simon Baxter, Gemma Arterton, Christopher Figg, Norman Merry, Nicolas Sampson, Arno Hazebroek, Dave Bishop, Robert Whitehouse, Mika Kioussis
Director of photography: Carlos De Carvalho
Production designer: Noam Piper
Costume designer: Lorna Marie Mugan
Editor: Mark Trend
Music: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Casting director: Colin Jones
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)
World sales: Protagonist Pictures
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