One reason that the great Virginia Woolf has proven resistant to the flattening instincts of the straight-ahead, birth-to-death biopic to date is that there are so many ways into the story of her life, and each aspect seems to have its emblematic text. Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of “The Hours” with its focus on the restrictive social roles that women have historically been forced to play, took “Mrs. Dalloway” as its central motif. And now, Chanya Button’s “Vita & Virginia,” an exploration of Woolf’s (Elizabeth Debicki) 10-year, up-and-down affair with novelist and socialite Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton), loosely organizes itself around the writing of “Orlando,” a novel inspired by Sackville-West in which the title character, born a man, spontaneously changes sex at about 30 years of age.
As a partial glimpse at a multifaceted personality, Button and screenwriter Eileen Atkins, drawing sometimes over-literal inspiration from the letters the pair wrote to each other, thankfully make no particular claim to offering a definitive portrait. They largely steer clear of psychologizing and scarcely even obliquely reference Woolf’s death by suicide at the age of 59 (though Button cannot resist prettifying Woolf’s incipient mental illness with some semi-surreal interludes in which exotic vines and mystical flowers burst through the walls and floors).
Instead, aside from the creamy, fresh, bright tones of Carlos De Carvalho’s photography, and the surprising, but successfully anachronistic melodic electro score from Isobel Waller-Bridge, it seems that Button, in just her second feature, will allow the lesbian angle to set the film apart from its period-drama brethren and otherwise won’t do too much to air out those stuffy, damask-curtained rooms. Which makes it all the more surprising that “Vita & Virginia” should, due in large part to one astonishing performance, give us an impression of Woolf that is so much bigger than the relatively contained story the film tells, and the relatively familiar format in which it unfolds.
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Can we please just talk about Elizabeth Debicki for a moment? For those of us who singled her out back in 2013 as the real gemstone amid the gaudy fakery of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” 2018 has born out that potential. The year has already seen Debicki turn in a perfectly precise and chilling performance in Jennifer Fox’s “The Tale” and attain breakout status amid the heavyweight cast of Steve McQueen’s “Widows.” But the most compelling evidence yet that she can not only rise to the occasion but rise well beyond it, may be her performance as Woolf in “Vita & Virginia.”
Not only a sensitive, and slightly alien turn that ably evokes Woolf’s elusive genius, where Nicole Kidman donned a fake nose (and won an Oscar) for her version of Virginia, the undeniably stunning Debicki simply plays plain. Her willowy elegance transformed into something birdlike and bony, her gait and posture impatient rather than graceful, whether or not it’s accurate mimicry of Woolf’s demeanor is less important than the impression it gives of someone who is simply not used to being looked at, and is far more comfortable being the one doing the looking. It reorients the whole film around Debicki’s uncanny gaze for reasons other than her beauty, and it makes her interpretation of Woolf, picking her fearful but curious way through the unmapped territory of a dangerous relationship, quite riveting.
This does work to unbalance the film, however. Arterton, who also exec produces, is appealing as Vita (and Isabella Rossellini is a nice bonus as her disapproving mother), but for all Sackville-West’s widely publicized unconventionality, her portrayal here is far more conventional, less interested with Vita’s writing and interior life than with Virginia’s. Although Vita pursues Virginia initially, the relationship dynamic quickly becomes one of muse and artist, flame and moth, rather than an equal meeting-of-minds partnership. “I love the way you see me!” trills Vita delightedly, having just read the first draft of “Orlando” — but it’s both a declaration of affection and an admission that Virginia has created an idea of Vita that even Vita suspects has more to it than is really there.
Button’s fondness for floating, gauzy close-ups of her leading ladies’ faces, often with a band of sharp focus falling across the eyes while everything else is soft, can feel overworked, and sometimes her insistence on putting the words the women wrote into their mouths as though they spoke them, makes the dialogue stilted. But as the film wears on, these considerations largely fall away, as “Vita & Virginia” loses its girlishness, drawn like the tides to the solemn maturity of Debicki’s performance. With her as the lodestar, this is a stranger and more intriguing film than it really has a right to be, one that becomes less about a clandestine courtship between famous women, and more about Woolf’s relationship with her writing, and with the workings of her own beautiful, restless mind.