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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Vita & Virginia ***

Starring: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Rupert Penry-Jones, Isabella Rossellini Director: Chanya Button Country: UK Virginia Woolf never ceases to fascinate audiences worldwide. Her enigmatic work, battle with depression and tumultuous personal life have been the subject of films before - the sensational The Hours being the most iconic - but this new biopic focuses adroitly on her relationship with novelist and society figure Vita Sackville-West. Vita (Arterton) is a profoundly successful writer who is no stranger to scandal. Despite an arrangement with her husband (Penry-Jones) that allows them both to sleep with whomever they please, she has already engaged in a widely publicised love affair that brought their marriage into question and scandal upon her mother (Rossellini). But as both urge caution upon her meeting the Bloomsbury Set, she can’t help but become obsessed with Virginia Woolf (Debicki), whom she doggedly pursues with an often reckless abandon. Woolf is both enamoured and cautious with Vita, who would go on to become inspiration for her biggest hit, Orlando. As period pieces go, this is actually quite distinctive in its adventurous use of a thumping electronic soundtrack. The roaring 20s are brought to life with a score by Isobel Waller-Bridge (yes, she’s Phoebe’s sister) and both the party sequences and emotive scenes are underpinned by slick and ethereal beats. Just like Marie Antoinette (without the wigs) this elevates a mediocre movie into something distinctive and modern. However, despite its sophisticated trimmings, the film relies on two barely likeable characters and a script that feels written by an English Literature undergraduate as a project for the Easter hols. Arterton’s Vita is feisty and modern, refusing to be constrained by convention or her gender. But when she turns up at a party with another woman just to upset Virginia, you can tell that she’s not above using her independence to be petty. While we can see her with 21st century eyes as strong and free-spirited, there’s no denying that she was dangerous for the people around her and a bad influence on the delicate Virginia. Debicki is suitably cryptic as Virginia, blank-faced, wide-eyed and noticeably lacking Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose. She has brief moments of gaiety but is always teetering on the edge of breakdowns, which are brought to life using imaginative CGI as we see nature misbehaving around her. Any film about Woolf is going to feature her bipolar disorder heavily, but this translates here to numerous sequences of her wandering around barefoot in a nightdress and wild hair, looking like a cross between Ophelia and Samara. These scenes are long and do nothing to alleviate the heavy pace, which drags its feet for at least twenty minutes longer than it needs to. Director Button does a lot with weak material. It looks good, sounds good and is populated with actors doing great performances, but the dots somehow don’t add up to make a satisfying biopic that justifies its existence. It seems that anyone who ever wrote a book before the 1950s is being given the biopic treatment nowadays, when the better films would be adaptations of their work. Vita & Virginia is just another in this pantheon of biopics and its limited cinema release earlier this year only reflects the lack of enthusiasm of distributors to roll out yet another movie about yet another writer and the public’s reluctance to see them. OUT NOW ON DVD AND ON DEMAND, RELEASED BY THUNDERBIRD RELEASING.

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