Writers: Eileen Atkins with Chanya Button
Director: Chanya Button
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Opening this year’s Flare, London’s biggest LGBTQ+ film festival, is Vita and Virginia,a lavish period drama based on the love affair between Sackville- West and Woolf at the beginning of the 1920s. While Vita’s dogged pursuit of Woolf is dramatically reimagined, the film is dripping with so many pearls that its Sunday night aesthetic rather eclipses the corrosive love at the heart of this true story.
Of course, this is not the first time this affair has been told and surely nor will it be the last. This love challenges two taboos; that of lesbian desire, and perhaps more importantly, in this film at least, cross-class desire. In 1990, the BBC produced a TV series called Portrait of a Marriage, which recounted another one of Sackville-West’s torrid lesbian affairs, and which was based on the book of the same name by her son Nigel Nicholson. The love interest at the centre of that tale is Violet Trefusis, and so enamoured was Vita that she left her husband and sons.
Vita and Virginia begins after that affair, with Vita and her husband Harold trying to renegotiate the rules of their marriage. It is a very modern marriage, with both of them sleeping with members of the same sex. But Harold insists that any affairs must be hidden from view. His position in politics demands that they both be discreet; he only just managed to muffle the scandal when his wife left before and so he begins to fret when he suspects that Vita is launching herself on new writer Virginia Woolf.
And launch Vita does. She bursts into Virginia’s life, never mind that she looks like a vapid flapper amidst the intellectual Bloomsbury set. Soon she’s writing numerous letters to Virginia, and turning up to Woolf’s London home, which she shares with her husband Leonard. Mrs Dalloway is just about to be published, and Woolf’s career feted and cemented, and it seems that Vita is entranced by the glamour of words. Down in the basement their Hogarth Press churns out copies of the other Great Modernists, Freud and Eliot, but as these authors only have a limited audience Virginia and Leonard ask Vita to write them a book. Her previous novels have been successful, and the Hogarth Press is in need of a bestseller.
Despite Woolf’s reluctance, Vita bombasts her with praise and soon Woolf is in awe of her new friend’s aristocratic lifestyle. Leonard, earnestly middle-class, calls Vita and her set ‘toffs’, but by this time his wife has been truly caught and is making her way down to Knole in Kent, the Sackville-West’s family home. In what must a coup, a good deal of this film is actually shot at Knole, and its battlements and deer park add some grandeur and space to this claustrophobic affair. It also became the backdrop for Woolf’s most successful novel Orlando published in 1928, with its gender-swapping title character based on Vita.
As the film is co-produced by the Irish Film Board, Dublin stands in for London, and it’s a handsome replacement. However, most of the film’s budget seems to have been spent on Vita’s costumes. Increasingly elaborate and bold, her frocks and culottes are quite startling and distracting. As Vita, Gemma Arterton must be having a ball, but her campish, vampish behaviour does begin to grate in the film’s second half. Her Vita is shallow, and she never gives us a glimpse of the successful novelist and poet. It’s hard to see what Virginia, played by Elizabeth Debicki, sees in her. Once she isn’t required to spout aphorisms like Wilde, Debicki’s Woolf is played very sympathetically, and we can see the panic and paranoia underneath her initial propriety. It’s a brilliant performance.
Virginia is not the only one hypnotised by Vita’s bravado; her husband too, despite his predilection for men, begs her to stay with him. Harold is played by the ever-youthful Rupert Penry-Jones, and also gives a fine performance. Isabella Rossellini is unrecognisable as Vita’s mother and her accent is a thing of wonder. Under Chanya Button’s direction, the result is a sumptuous treat. Only the music by Isobel Waller-Bridge (sister of Fleabg’s Phoebe) lets the audience know that this film has been made in the 21stcentury. Her ominous dance rhythms settle down as the film progresses but the early party scenes seem to suggest that the 1920s is somehow similar to the present day.
Vita and Virginia is scheduled for a July release, and although it’s a period drama, with very little sex, the big screen is the best place for this film. Based on the stage play by Eileen Atkins, the love affair between Vita and Virginia is now given cinematic scope, and although we never get to understand what drives Vita, we can’t help but admire her taste in clothes.
Released July 2019 | Image: Contributed