Compared to many authors, Virginia Woolf has fared relatively well on screen. Eileen Atkins’ one-woman stage show, A Room of One’s Own, that was later filmed for TV, was terrific. Then back in 2002, Nicole Kidman gave an Oscar-winning performance in The Hours (the prosthetic nose that aided her has sadly yet to be honoured).
More recently, Lydia Leonard gave a particularly fine performance as Woolf in Life in Squares for the BBC. Now Chanya Button, the same director who was behind the comic 2015 road-trip movie, Burn, Burn, Burn, offers up her own take on the Bloomsbury author focusing on Woolf’s romantic relationship with Vita Sackville-West.
Gemma Arterton seems to be having a jolly good time playing Sackville-West. She dives right in as the libertine aristocrat, offering up a clipped tally-ho accent. Her days are spent dashing around in her sporty little car between the great houses of England, living her own ‘Sapphic pageant’, avoiding her mother (a barbed performance from Isobella Rosellini) as best she can. Meanwhile, her husband, (Rupert Penry-Jones), grows increasingly infuriated, so goes off to have an affair with a lord. Finding time in her busy diary, Sackville-West attends a party put on by Vanessa Bell (Emerald Fennell), sister of Woolf, where she meets the famous modernist.
Elizabeth Debicki gives a strong performance as Woolf, with a low-drawling accent, accompanied by sorrowful gazes, capturing something of Woolf’s sharp intelligence and mental anguish. Try as Debicki might, she’s continuously undermined by Button’s clunking script, that’s full of howlers like, “I’ve left him reading Mrs Dalloway,” or have having to receive lines like “I’m bewitched by your writing.” Please.
Worse still is how Woolf’s mental illness is captured on screen, where CGI flowers sprout from the floor, suggesting if only her husband Leonard (Peter Ferdinando) could have torn himself away from the printing presses to hire a good gardener her suicide might have been avoided.
Button is at her most inventive mining their real-life correspondence for material, which provides tender moments between Woolf and West. Although, the less said about the echoey voice-over narration of the actual letters the better. When Button is on target, there is a real sense of how the pair fell so passionately in love, but when Button misses her mark, it all unravels.
Button clearly wants to show how ahead of their time these women were. How they boldly defied the patriarchal society in which they lived, and in Woolf’s case created works that changed the course of literature. It’s the sense of miscalculated urgency to the film about how relevant Woolf and Sackville-West are to contemporary audiences that doesn’t quite gel, and it’s not only the ill-fitting EDM score from Isobel Waller-Bridge.
Vita & Virginia is a remarkably chaste and safe film given its wealthy subject matter, although it’s a good looking period drama, including the excellent production design from Noam Piper and costumes from Lorna Marie Mugan.
Dorothy Parker once quipped that the Bloomsbury group, “painted in circles, and loved in triangles”. -They were bold, inventive, and defiant artists, Woolf most of all – it’s a shame Button’s take on them is all too square.
Joseph Walsh | @JosephDAWalsh