Of the many compelling love affairs that punctuated the lives of the writers and artists of the Bloomsbury set during the first half of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf’s involvement with Vita Sackville-West stands out. Their passion waned and is now remembered in good part thanks to its legacy, Woolf’s highly original novel, Orlando.
It’s puzzling. The Bloomsbury set has inspired generations of dedicated fans, countless books and the odd ballet, but very few films. And of those films, none succeeds in getting anywhere close to bringing their extraordinary subjects to life. This is hard to understand – everything about Bloomsbury, from the adventurous personal lives and complex arrangements, the mordant wit and considerable artistic and intellectual achievements, to the sheer amount of biographical material at filmmakers’ disposal: here are rich pickings for a whole period drama sub-genre, if only that. Yet very few have dared to tread.
Enter “Vita and Virginia”, director Chanya Button’s new film based on Eileen Atkins’s original 1992 play of the same name. The prospect is exciting. A modern, knowing take on a 1920s love affair between two remarkable women – women who were in many ways, more modern and self-determining than many women allow themselves to be now. An opportunity, too, for present-day enthusiasts to inhabit a re-imagined past they usually immerse themselves in through books, or by visiting the set’s old haunts in Fitzrovia, Bloomsbury and East Sussex.
Glimpses of what those lives might have been does occasionally shine through. But those are rare flickers, and as a story, “Vita and Virginia” cannot hold its promise. Verisimilitude is an issue, as many important details deviate. Only two characters provide a reasonable approximation of the people they portray – Rupert Penry-Jones and Peter Ferdinando as Harold Nicolson and Leonard Woolf respectively.
Verisimilitude need not matter so much if some sense of truth emerges from the story, if the central plank of the film – a compelling love affair – compels indeed. It need not matter that most of the locations are architecturally out of keeping, and that Bloomsberries – those dedicated followers of all things Bloomsbury – will wince at a wrong sense of place, or get distracted by a soundtrack which rapidly becomes repetitive and dull.
What matters more, is when every detail – setting, behaviour, casting, is not quite right, as is the case when Virginia visits her sister Vanessa Bell at Charleston Farmhouse, and they are all sat together in the kitchen. Or when Vita visits her redoubtable mother, played by the ever-wonderful Isabella Rossellini – fabulous casting but with a dialogue which gives no hint of the mother’s own highly unorthodox life. These things matter because it is out of such details that one gets to understand the characters and what drives them.
Even though the central characters are miscast, as Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki undoubtedly are, it would not matter if they were able to create the sense of a genuine attraction, of fascination. It turns out to be impossible, because the script does not provide them with the resources to do this. Woolf’s and Sackville-West’s essential qualities, though extensively documented in the historical record and in their writing – their charisma, wit, intelligence, and ability to entrance others, just do not punch through the screen. Their beauty does not come across, because their strength does not come across. Woolf was beautiful – and strong – and Sackville-West was a handsome woman. Prettiness did not come into it. And Woolf’s mental illness might have caused her to feel weak, but did not make her into a blonde, wan, humourless object.
There is one arresting sequence, which out of the blue makes one feel transported in time to what one could imagine as really being there, for a few moments – when Vita goes to a Bloomsbury party, walks into the house, through rooms filled with guests. This is beautifully photographed by DoP Carlos de Carvalho and stands apart from the other, more conventional images. Yet the magic stops at the exact moment Vita sees Virginia across a crowded room.
Cinema is currently going through a phase of depicting allegedly strong female characters in a way that leaves the male gaze entirely unruffled and at ease, and perhaps even entertained. This is possibly a sign of the times, but also means that fundamental truths about women’s lives – that ultimately they are all ‘difficult’ and genuinely interesting – are lost.
“Vita and Virginia” is available here:
Dir/Wr Chanya Button | DoP Carlos de Carvalho | With Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini, Rupert Penry-Jones, Peter Ferdinando | 1h50m.
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