Film Review: Vita and Virginia (2018)

Written by Eileen Atkins, Vita and Virginia doesn’t quite capture the intensity of this iconic love affair

“When was the moment of your greatest disillusionment?
‘The first time I saw a penis'”

I didn’t know that Eileen Atkins had written a play about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf but given that it dates back to 1992 and hasn’t been much – if at all – revived, I could perhaps be forgiven. It is that play Vita and Virginia that she has adapted for the screen with Chanya Button, who also directs, and something of its theatrical nature remains.

Based on their copious letters to each others, Vita and Virginia is perhaps inevitably wordy and this isn’t always a great thing in a film. Set as it is in 1920s bohemian London, you might expect the vibe of a decadent whirl and for a while at least, thanks in large part to Isobel Waller-Bridge’s effectively anachronistic score, this is a most seductive party.

Gemma Arterton’s highly flirtatious Vita and Elizabeth Debicki’s ethereally lofty Virginia have the kind of chemistry that fizzles marvellously in anticipation. The problems come once they’ve hooked up, Vita is given little further characterisation beyond sexpot and Virginia’s mental health issues are manifested most bizarrely, driving a wedge into the connection that provided the artistic inspiration for Orlando.

It makes the film ultimately a little thin, brittle even, when you want to be captivated and devastated by huge swathes of emotion. Instead, there’s oddness from Isabella Rossellini as Vita’s mother Lady Sackville, curiosity from Adam Gillen and Emerald Fennell as members of the Bloomsbury set and a mightily attractive moustache on Rupert Penry-Jones as Vita’s husband.   

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