|Arterton and Debicki shooting Chanya Button's Vita & Virginia|
|Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins in Atkins' play|
Vita & Virginia.
Those edges are defined from the start by wonderful performances. When Elizabeth Debicki's Virginia is first introduced to us -- a much more bold and taciturn version than the Nicole Kidman incarnation in The Hours -- she is sitting at her writing table working and listening to a radio interview between Vita and husband Harold Nicolson (diplomat and writer) as they debate what makes a good marriage. Both women are therefore seen immediately in their element. Woolf is seen in her best self: writing without illness or affliction. Sackville-West is speaking from her deep independent spirit. Best selves are of course not always possible: the headaches that led to episodes of psychosis and delusion in Virginia are given wonderful visual life in this film through momentary powerful and unobtrusive use of effects. In that opening sequence, Harold Nicolson describes marriage as being analogous to a plant that is nurtured by love, and Vita wonders aloud, disparagingly, if he is implying a trope that a wife is the 'soil'. Later Virginia will walk into the room where her own husband Leonard is reading her novel Mrs. Dalloway, and in her fear and exposure waiting for his verdict she has a vision of an unbridled plant unfolding and creeping along the ground between them. In this way, the moments of struggle are not portrayed as a weakness or 'madness' but as a constant challenge and manifestation of the way in which Virginia reflected on all images, sounds and ideas in her orbit.
At the same time, Vita's striding elegance is commanding and viscerally powerful. The casting reverses their physical size (Vita was very tall and thickly built while Virginia was much smaller) and also presents Vita as more Mayfair than she was -- she was an aristocrat but she was too tall and awkward to have real glamour. Her power came from her unabashed assertiveness of inner formidable strength. One moment missing from the film is Virginia's own naming of the moment she fell in love with Vita, watching her order fish in a fishmonger's in Kent, solid, beautiful and in full control of her aristocratic demeanour but not glamourous; she describes Vita's bearing in that moment instead as being like a Spanish galleon on the high seas. In this film version Debicki towers over Gemma Arterton's Vita, but it doesn't matter. In every other way Arterton captures Vita's heart beautifully, and the film rightly focuses instead on who they were. In a way Debicki's height helps to emphasize Woolf's claim that Vita taught her how to believe in her own strength.
|Vita; Virginia and Vita; Virginia|
|Cathryn Harris playing Violet Trefusis and Janet McTeer playing|
Vita in the BBC's 1990 series Portrait of a Marriage
|Atkins, now joined by Penelope Wilton as Vita|
As the two women, Arterton and Debicki (almost unbelievably) nail it. As deeply as I respected Kidman's portrait of Woolf, it never quite jived with the jocular, robustly witty and even (at times) sparkling Virginia of the letters. Virginia's letters have been called (by Nigel Nicolson) among the very best of her writing and he's right. In the film, a measure of deep credibility is Vita's mentioning her love of Virginia's essays -- so lovely that fact is in. The essays, like the letters, vibrate that deeper intellect that Vita adored. Debicki's characterization embodies the frailness of Virginia in a completely unusual way: the inconfidence, uncertainty about her own work becomes the place of greatest vulnerability. Her capacity to engage others and also hide away from them is beautifully balanced here, and I was moved quite frankly to tears by how well that very painful balancing act on Woolf's part was brought to life. Gemma Arterton, whom I so deeply enjoyed in Lone Scherfig's Their Finest for her capacity to bring an urgent desire for independence to an otherwise passive female character, here shows her capacity for range. As Vita, she goes from idolizing the Bloomsbury crowd to becoming somewhat captive to their artistic caprices. Arterton's range is most vivid in a scene where Vita is posing effectively as herself at Charleston, Vanessa Bell's home, while Woolf and her sister orchestrate a perfect picture of her, who will be fictionalized with as much of the truth as possible in Woolf's Orlando. In this scene, the agency has been upended and art has won: Woolf stands behind the camera in full command of her vision, while Vita is rendered helpless and objectified by her lover's gaze. It was a view/angle I had not considered before but it resonates. I also loved Arterton's wonderful nuancing of emotion in the final scene between them, still in more love than she had realized or taught herself to believe and also in wonder at Woolf's insightful understanding. That scene is one for the ages: for performance, for the beautiful lighting and cinematography, for the filmmaker's instinct not to get too close with the camera so that the two of them are always in frame together.
As the film rightly portrays, it would take the novel Orlando to bring Woolf to this place of strength. Vita's sexual appetite moved her on from Virginia to other relationships and Orlando brought her squarely back. Beneath both of these possessions is a deep and cherished admiration for each other's gifts. This is not new territory for director Chanya Button, whose 2015 film Burn, Burn, Burn was a testament to the enduring friendship of two women. In Vita & Virginia, as a writer and a director, Button favours medium and wider shots over more intimate close-ups, allowing us an equality and distance that always keeps in mind the women's contexts. The love scenes feel almost detached, while clearly the result of their mutual hypnosis. These prerogatives of direction felt like wise and right choices to me, dreading as I was, a more lurid kind of depiction. Vita and Virginia loved the gifted other, the brilliant soul. "I have a million things not so much to say, as to sink into you," Virginia once wrote to Vita. And we can be grateful that now at least a hundred of those things have been sunk into us.