Exquisite period detail notwithstanding, the historical romance Vita & Virginia misses the mark. A dramatization of the relationship between socialite/writer Vera Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and fellow writer Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki), this arch effort constantly aspires to a profundity and a gravitas that it never achieves, quashed by the characters’ propensity for long-winded platitudes. (“You have as much as me as I have to give,” “I feel terribly real right now,” et al.)
Set in the early 1920s, in the period after the publication of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the story follows these two women on an inevitable collision course, exemplified by long, lingering glances between the two when they first meet.
Vera is married to Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones), a career diplomat who’s willing to overlook her lesbian dalliances so long as she maintains a circumspect decorum. He would prefer that her “muddles” not draw undue attention. After all, the bisexual Harold is an expert at keeping his own “muddles” – with men – quiet.
Virginia’s husband, Leonard (Peter Fernando), is more concerned with his wife’s mental and emotional well-being, wanting her to be happy and find fulfillment but worried that a relationship with Vera could have severe consequences. His suspicions are well-founded.
Arterton, one of the film’s armies of executive producers, gives a strident performance as Vita. She’s haughty, petulant and seemingly even predatory (“You’ve finally caught your prey,” one observer tells her), yet after wooing and winning Virginia, she promptly embarrasses her at a gallery opening – both by arriving late and in the company of another woman. It’s never clear what drives and motivates her, or the source of her fickleness.
Debecki has an easier time of it, capturing Virginia’s emotional fragility and her resilience. Arterton’s turn is overstated, Debicki’s is understated – and all the more effective as a result. Isabella Rossellini has a small but showy role as Vita’s mother. She plays it to the hilt, yet there’s a clear reason for her behavior. She’s determined not to bring shame on the family name, and if Vita resists this, Lady Sackville won’t think twice about disinheriting her.
The screenplay, based on the correspondence between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, was written by director Chanya Button and actress Eileen Atkins (who earlier penned the screenplay for the 1996 screen adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway), who had written the play Vita & Virginia, in which she’d also appeared. According to some reports, however, Atkins asked to have her name removed from the credits. Make of that what you will.
Vita & Virginia is a nice try. It’s never boring, it looks terrific, and everyone involved takes it very seriously, but it doesn’t add up to much. Virginia’s relationship with Vita was evidently the inspiration for her 1928 novel Orlando. There would seem to be a wealth of source material for this story, but looks – even long, lingering ones – can be deceiving.
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