Written by Eileen Atkins and Chanya Button
Directed by Chanya Button
Starring Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki and Isabella Rossellini
Running time: 1 hour and 50 minutes
by Fiona Underhill
Virginia Woolf has proven a source of fascination for the film and TV world for many years, with 90s adaptations of Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992) and Mrs Dalloway (Marleen Gorris, 1997), as well as Woolf herself appearing as characters in The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002) and TV mini-series Life in Squares (Simon Kaijser, 2015). Mrs Dalloway was adapted for the screen by legendary actress Dame Eileen Atkins and she also wrote the playscript of Vita and Virginia. Her co-writer and the director for the film of Vita and Virginia is Chanya Button, a young British theater director, who made her feature debut in 2015 with independent comedy Burn Burn Burn. Button is following in the footsteps of Thea Sharrock (Me Before You) and Josie Rourke (Mary Queen of Scots) in making the leap from the British stage to the big screen in recent years.
Vita and Virginia focuses on the relationship between Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton). Sackville-West was actually the more prolific and profitable writer of the two during their life-times and she helped make the publishing house (The Hogarth Press) started by Woolf and her husband Leonard (Peter Ferdinando) more successful. Both Woolf and Sackville-West had open marriages. Sackville-West came from aristocracy, but because she was a woman did not stand to inherit her large family home (Knole House) or any titles that went with it. She therefore married a diplomat, Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) and had two children with him. Both Vita and Harold had same-sex affairs, with the knowledge of the other. Open relationships were also a common feature of The Bloomsbury Group, of which the Woolfs and Virginia’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell (Emerald Fennell), her husband Clive Bell (Gethin Anthony) and her artistic collaborator/lover Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen) were members. An all-seeing, disapproving eye over all of this is Vita’s mother Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini).
The film shows how Vita sexually awakened the repressed Virginia and also how the relationship had a huge affect on Virginia’s mental state, both positively and negatively. The acting from Debicki and Arterton is good and sells this relationship well, although Arterton is perhaps miscast. This is ironic given that Arterton was attached even before Button (she is an executive producer and it is her who brought an early draft of Atkins’ script to Button). The role of Virginia Woolf went through Eva Green and Andrea Riseborough before landing on Debicki, but she is typically excellent. The height difference works well (Debicki is 6 foot 3), as it subverts the fact that Arterton’s Vita is the more out-going and dominant of the two.
The theatrical influences on Vita and Virginia are clear from the start and one of the more clunky aspects (which could potentially have worked on stage), is the way the two characters read their letters to the other aloud, as monologues directly into the camera. The heavy-handed visual metaphors continue throughout, including Virginia’s breakdown being signified by a swarm of ravens. The directorial choices made are not subtle and are reminiscent of decisions one might make while studying at film or theatre school, to the point where I was getting second-hand embarrassment remembering my own attempts at playwriting while at university.
The original music by Isobel Waller-Bridge (yes, Phoebe’s sister) is anachronistic to say the least. It is electronic, modern and not at all what you’d expect from a period piece. It is incongruous and intrusive but kind of worked for me, although I can see it proving unpopular with most audiences. Meeting more common expectations of a period film are the costumes (by Lorna Marie Mugan) and production design (by Noam Piper). Vita’s costumes are especially delightful, with her manly tweeds, jodhpurs and knee-high tartan golf socks; as well as more feminine silk dresses in art-deco geometric and asymmetrical designs. The stately home locations (including Knole House in Kent), the country cottages in Sussex and of course, the Bloomsbury locations are all stunning and envy-inducing.
Ultimately, Vita and Virginia feels like a slight misfire, squandering a strong idea and strong cast. The dialogue is a little cringe-worthy and some of the arty flourishes are perhaps too much and needed reining in somewhat. While the unconventional choice of music did work for me, other decisions are more baffling and greater subtlety is to be desired. Elizabeth Debicki once again proves she is a star, no matter the project she is surrounded by. This film is still worth seeing for the clothes and the period setting, but not for really getting under the skin of its characters or revealing their motivations and mental states. A shame.