Vita & Virginia (2 stars)

Vita & Virginia

Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki join forces for this visually delightful but ultimately disappointing biopic

Many will have encountered excerpts of the swooningly romantic letters sent between literary great Virginia Woolf and celebrated writer / garden designer Vita Sackville-West. For those who have not, this dramatisation of their affair is an intriguing yet ultimately disappointing introduction to their infatuation.

Set in 1920s England, the film concerns itself with the meeting of these two great minds and how the androgynous Vita (Gemma Arterton) inspired the envelope-pushing novel Orlando, written by Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki). Writer-director Chanya Button (Burn Burn Burn) and co-writer Eileen Atkins clearly know their subject; there's a, potentially alienating, presumption that audiences do too, with the film assuming familiarity with the figures who comprise Woolf's bohemian social circle, and with the wider attitudes of the time.

Visually, it's a delight – right down to the intricately patterned furniture and wallpapers – and Lorna Marie Mugan's wonderful costumes help characterise the two women. Arterton seems to draw confidence from hers, smirking and sauntering through scenes, though this is offset by her affected delivery of the stilted dialogue. After her introduction in a laughably silly party sequence, Debicki fares better, imbuing Virginia with a physical awkwardness and vulnerability.

Button has tried to draw out what she identifies as a punk aesthetic by utilising a contemporary score. Certainly, anachronistic musical choices can work within a period setting – as with the post-punk soundtrack of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette – but here composer Isobel Waller-Bridge's electronica never connects with the mood on screen.

The film favours soft-focus closeups of the women's direct-to-camera recitals of the aforementioned letters. The effect is stagey. Opting to show them speaking their own words rather than reacting to the other's makes it difficult to see their love for one another develop. As such, changes in emotion often occur suddenly; the film lurches from one stage in their relationship to another, and the result is a strangely detached, uneven tone.

Selected release from Fri 5 Jul.

Vita and Virginia

  • 2 stars
  • 2018
  • Ireland / UK
  • Directed by: Chanya Button
  • Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones

The love story of Virginia Woolf (Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Arterton).