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Vita & Virginia

The love story that inspired Virginia Woolf's Orlando

Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia is an exploration of Virginia Woolf’s (Elizabeth Debicki) 10-year, up-and-down affair with novelist and socialite Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton). Drawing inspiration from letters the pair wrote to one another, Button makes no claim to offering a definitive portrait of Woolf’s multifaceted personality. And yet, thanks in large part to one astonishing performance, Vita & Virginia give us an impression of Woolf that is much larger than the relatively contained lesbian love story it tells.

Poster for the literary love story Vita & VirginiaAudiences have already seen Elizabeth Debicki turn in a perfectly precise and chilling performance in Jennifer Fox’s The Tale and attain breakout status amid the heavyweight cast of Steve McQueen’s Widows. But the most compelling evidence yet that she can not only rise to the occasion, but rise well above it, may be her performance in Vita & Virginia.

In a sensitive turn that ably evokes Woolf’s elusive genius, the undeniably stunning Debicki plays plain. Her willowy elegance transformed into something birdlike and bony, her gait and posture impatient rather than graceful, she gives the impression of someone who is not used to being looked at, and far more comfortable being the one doing the looking. It reorients the whole film around Debicki’s uncanny gaze, and makes her interpretation of Woolf, picking her fearful but curious way through the unmapped territory of a dangerous relationship, quite riveting.

Although Vita (an appealing Gemma Arterton) pursues Virginia initially, the relationship dynamic quickly becomes one of muse and artist, flame and moth, rather than an equal meeting-of-minds partnership. “I love the way you see me!” trills Vita delightedly, having just read the first draft of Orlando – but it’s both a declaration of affection and an admission that Virginia has created an idea of Vita that may have more to it than is really there.

As the film progresses, Vita & Virginia loses its girlishness, drawn like the tides to the solemn maturity of Debicki’s performance. With her as the lodestar, this is a more intriguing film than it really has a right to be, one that becomes less about a clandestine courtship between famous women, and more about Woolf’s relationship with her writing, and with the workings of her own beautiful, restless mind.

– Jessica Kiang, Variety

 

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