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UK 2019
Directed by
Chanya Button
110 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Vita & Virginia

I must admit that initially I was rather irritated by Chanya Button’s film.  With its busy editing, archly literary dialogue and incongruously anachronistic electro-beat music and Gemma Arteton’s mannered intrepretation of society belle and popular author Vita Sackville-West I suspected that we were in for a Baz Lurhman style Edwardian-millennial mash-up.  Fortunately this was not to be and gradually as these aspects receded from view I found myself won over by Eileen Atkins and director Button’s script with its well drawn lead characters and the generous performances by Arteton and Elizabeth Debicki as well as Carlos De Carvalho’s splendid cinematography and the gorgeous art direction and costume design.

Based on Atkins’s stage play about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Sackville-West, the inspiration for Woolf’s 1928 novel, 'Orlando', Button makes good use of the women’s letters to each other, to chart the progress of the affair instigated by the avidly star-struck Vita and succumbed to by the neurasthenic Virginia against the background of Edwardian high society and Bloomsbury avant-grade modernism.

Australian actress Debicki who has had a remarkable career since her breakout in Luhrman’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby (it was only her second screen appearance after the execrable A Few Best Men  2011) does a fine job as Woolf, at once both deeply passionate and painfully defensive in an ever-so-English way.  Arteton’s vibrantly, provocative Sackville-West brings to her the carnality that otherwise would have remained only a literary ideal.  Precisely because of this when she falls for Vita’s ardour it is in the hardest of ways. The dynamic between Debicki and Arteton is convincing with director Button making good use of the physical differnces of the two to suggest the forces at work between them. As a portrait of a love affair, Vita & Virginia shows us enough to let our imagination do the rest and particularly if you are interested in this high-water period of English art, it is well worth seeing.                                       

FYI: Sally Potter filmed Orlando to good effect in 1992 whilst another Australian, Nicole Kidman, won an Oscar for her portrayal of Woolf in Stephen's Daldry's The Hours in 2002




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