Saturday 28 August 2021

Movie Review: Vita And Virginia (2018)

A love affair among erudite elites, Vita And Virginia recreates an era of burgeoning sexual liberation among progressive women, but remains rather dreary and glacially paced.

Within England's literary circles of the 1920s, successful author Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) is married to diplomat Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) but openly pursuing romantic and sexual pursuits with others. Her behaviour scandalizes her wealthy and prim mother (Isabella Rossellini). Undeterred, Vita sets her eyes on the more critically celebrated but less popular author Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki), who is married to publisher Leonard (Peter Ferdinando) but also free to have affairs.

Vita is determined, all-consuming and possessive while Virginia is fragile and more circumspect, but she eventually succumbs to Vita's overtures. Their romance is passionate but interrupted by Vita's travels to accompany Harold to overseas postings. The love affair leads to literary inspiration, and Virginia starts to write Orlando: A Biography, based on Vita.

An adaptation of the 1992 play by Eileen Atkins, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Chanya Button, Vita And Virginia successfully wriggles out of its stage origins and conveys a sense of time and place. The sets, costumes and hairstyles offer understated visual delight, while the relatively nonchalant attitude towards open marriages and same-sex affairs, at least among this aristocracy of writers, is also well-drawn.

But the narrative content is sparse, not helped by the two lead actresses reading letters into the camera, a device that may work on stage but quickly deflates on the screen. Pacing management is also a problem, Button dedicating the first half to Vita's slow motion pursuit of Virginia, and the second half to Virginia using the affair as inspiration for Orlando, the creative process of writing never the most exciting of cinematic topics. 

With the convergence then the divergence dominating, the actual romance is squeezed into a few minutes in the middle, essentially over as soon as it starts, Vita demanding more than Virginia can provide. With a staid mood dominating, Vita And Virginia fails to capture the thrill of love.

Whether historically accurate or not, the dialogue is weighed down by literary cleverness, Vita and especially Virginia communicating with well-thought out elegance in every line. The women's chic prose places them on a pedestal to be admired, undoubtedly eloquent but knowingly distant.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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