For a movie about scandalous real-life mavericks, Vita & Virginia is too tame by half. Based on a 1992 epistolary stage two-hander by Eileen Atkins, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Chanya Button, the film tracks the unconventional extramarital love affair between free-spirited socialite-writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and the literary pioneer Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) through 1920s London. The film – now in theaters as well as online – is easy on the eyes and boasts a fine cast. It is also stodgy and studied to the point of being a still life.
Essentially it’s a story of opposites attracting – the run-up, the point of impact and the aftermath. There’s fearless, fickle, sexually fluid Vita, whose colorful period clothes are as vivid as the periodic bursts of purple dialogue, such as a mention of women’s “velvet curves.” And there’s Virginia, brilliant, vulnerable and buttoned-up. She all but fades into the background in her drab blues and grays. This affair can’t end well, someone observes. Perhaps. But it does lead to Woolf’s game-changing novel “Orlando.”
While events unfold a century ago, the women’s open marriages smack of today. That’s underscored by a contemporary electronic and synth-heavy soundtrack that adds a time-leaping quality as well as flickers of energy. The movie needs it, amid all of the meaningful glances, moist eyes and carefully set tables and composed bowls of fruit. It’s a relief when jolts of droll humor drop in. “You do like to have your cakes and eat them too – so many cakes,” Vita’s husband not-so-gently teases. Zing!
Taking a cue from the play told through letters, the movie frequently shows pens scratching and typewriters clacking before the titular characters face the camera, gazes fixed, to intently pour out what’s in their missives to each other – and, effectively, to us. Twenty-five years after the Off Broadway production with Atkins as Vita opposite Vanessa Redgrave as Virginia, this device now summons close-up confessionals from reality TV. Similarly, the handling of Virginia’s troubled mental state is hit and miss. Case in point: When the unsteady “Mrs. Dalloway” novelist imagines crows swooping and pecking at her, it’s The Birds all over again.
Through it all, the cast is focused and persuasive. Rupert Penry-Jones as Harold Nicolson, Vita’s diplomat husband, and Peter Ferdinando as Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s protective spouse, create sympathetic portraits. Isabella Rossellini pops in briefly to growl and scowl as Lady Sackville, Vita’s disapproving mother, who’s not above insinuating that her daughter is “a promiscuous exhibitionist.” And most importantly, Arterton and Debicki deliver rich star turns. Not long into the film, Harold tells Vita that Virginia “sounds like rather hard work.” The movie isn’t a labor, but it’s not so satisfying either.