Helen Tope reviews Vita and Virginia, showing one last time in our cinema on Tuesday 10 September at 6pm.
Based on her 1992 play, Eileen Atkins brings her one-woman show to the screen. The story of how Virginia Woolf meets Vita Sackville West should be an easy sell. It has everything to pique our interest: desire, lust and betrayal. But what Atkins’ passion project gives us is a lesson in the language of cinema.
Meeting in 1922 at a costume party, a mutual fascination between the two writers begins. The aristocratic, sexually-expressive Vita, and the shy, self-conscious Virginia start a love affair. Even living at the heart of London bohemian culture, Vita and Virginia are still subject to constraint. Vita, who lives at Sissinghurst Castle with diplomat husband Harold, has to rein in her passion for other women. Her mother, who holds the family purse strings, does not approve of scandal. Threatening to take Vita’s children away from her, Sackville West has to keep her affairs, including a recent escapade to Paris, under the radar.
Virginia’s issues run far deeper than newspaper headlines. Left traumatised by the death of her mother and stepsister, Woolf experiences her first breakdown at the age of 13. She will be subject to further breakdowns throughout her life, until she drowns herself in the River Ouse in 1941.
Emotionally fragile, Virginia marries Leonard Woolf. He is, in essence, the perfect partner for her. Calm, measured and reliable, Woolf sets up a publishing company, The Hogarth Press, in their home to give Virginia a point of focus.
The Hogarth Press becomes a success, publishing work by T.S Eliot and Sigmund Freud. Vita – a popular writer, but definitely not in with the cool Bloomsbury gang that Virginia inhabits – is thrilled when she manages to secure an invitation to one of their parties.
The initial fun of the Bloomsbury set poking fun at Vita’s lofty ancestry (although here privilege is very much relative) gives way to a meticulous telling of the Vita and Virginia story. Set against the backdrop of Knowle (Vita’s family home) and Sissinghurst, the love affair between the two writers is plotted with great care.
Using text from the letters sent back and forth between Woolf and Sackville West, Vita and Virginia explores the dynamic of ego meeting lust. While Sackville West is a practised seducer, and credited for gently awakening Woolf’s sexuality; Woolf is the superior writer, and the gulf between their talent creates a tension you would normally expect to see in a heterosexual relationship. In comparing herself to Woolf, Vita finds herself lacking.
For Woolf, the affair is about much more than simple conquest. In her teens, Woolf was subjected to episodes of sexual abuse from her stepbrothers, Gerald and George Duckworth. As a result, her mental health began to deteriorate. Experiencing hallucinations, Woolf was given the best advice available at the time – bedrest and feeding. It was designed to comfort, but provided very little in the way of actual treatment. Being allowed to explore her own sexuality with Vita, marked a turning point in Virginia’s life, both personally and professionally.
Taking inspiration from Vita’s freewheeling, bohemian life, Virginia begins to write a fictional biography. It is the story of a 16th century nobleman, Orlando. The book takes Vita’s history – the generations of Knowle – and puts it on the page. Getting Vita to pose for photographs to be used in the book, there is a power shift in their relationship. Orlando – a subversive, genre-busting novel – becomes Virginia’s best seller and catapults her into the spotlight. As Vita inevitably moves onto a new love, Virginia’s creativity is renewed. A Room of One’s Own and The Waves are to follow.
The wider impact of their affair is also explored by the film. Vita’s husband Harold (a worldly Rupert Penry-Jones), while enjoying extra-marital activity himself, warns Vita of the consequences of straying too far beyond the familial lines. Leonard Woolf is still the Hogarth Press stalwart, but at least in this film, Peter Fernando gives us a portrait of a man caught between the desire to protect Virginia, and his jealousy of what she is able to give Vita.
Woolf’s waspish set of friends almost ring true, but Adam Gillen who plays Duncan Grant, is the most convincing. Gossipy and lecherous, but with a strong sense of loyalty, Grant’s kindness and lack of judgement, helps Virginia to articulate her desires.
As Vita and Virginia, Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki look the part, although at 6’ 3”, Debicki towers over Vita, who in real life would have been the taller of the two. Debicki makes her height work – here Virginia stoops and slouches; she is gangly and awkward, but also delicately beautiful. Paired with Gemma Arterton’s bold, passionate Vita, the two are the ultimate odd couple. Vita, dressed in the latest fashions, and Virginia, still hanging onto the silhouettes of her girlhood. While the two actors work well together, there is a lack of chemistry that doesn’t make the pairing as believable as it should be.
It soon becomes clear as the film progresses, that the fault lies not with the actors, but with the script. The dialogue is too formal; the words of Vita and Virginia’s letters squeezed into unwieldy sentences. Co-written by Eileen Atkins and director Chayna Button, this is a film badly in need of a firm editorial hand.
As a result, Vita and Virginia is, ironically, a film with too many words. The cast clearly struggle placing the dialogue into an emotional context. We cannot feel, because we are too busy trying to listen. The stiffness and hauteur, even for Vita’s formidable mother Lady Sackville, is too much.
We are meant to be watching these people in their unguarded moments, and even the Bloomsbury set struggle to express themselves. When you’re questioning the patriarchy, it’s unlikely you will use the proper King’s English. Everything is too poised, too practised. There is no sense of spontaneity, which leaves the film feeling lifeless. These are men and women at the cutting edge of culture – where is the excitement?
It’s a shame, as with this cast and a different editorial approach, Vita and Virginia had the promise of being a great film. The soundtrack, by Isobel Waller-Bridge, is richly inventive, using Gebicki’s heartbeat to underline the rhythm in the music. The loving way in which the interiors of Knowle and Sissinghurst are used is particularly well done. While we have a sense of place, the people are never allowed a chance to settle in. Vita and Virginia’s story demands a level of intimacy that the film simply isn’t prepared to give.
With a better script, and a stronger edit, Vita and Virginia would be a very different film. But as it is, the words simply get in the way.