Arterton and Debicki work very well individually in ‘Vita & Virginia’ but share no chemistry
Directed by: Chanya Button
Written by: Eileen Atkins
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki and Isabella Rossellini
“Vita & Virginia” – “Nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy.” – Virginia Woolf, “Orlando” (1928)
Director Chanya Button’s “Vita & Virginia” depicts the relationship between Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki), and with two commendable actresses and a vastly intriguing historical premise, her film carries two key ingredients that can garner the Academy’s attention.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot more that separates “Vita & Virginia” from celebrating Oscar gold-happiness and wading in a state of cinematic-melancholy, and this film lands in the latter.
Certainly, Button’s altruistic intentions bear high praise, as noted during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
“If we can be relied to know anything about (Virginia Woolf), it’s how she died. Whereas, I think this story marks a moment of profound strength,” Button said.
Button accomplishes her goal, but along the way, the movie runs into distracting problems and delivers a flat, lackluster romance that certainly deserves more emotional interest, celebration, scandal, and a sense of danger. This is especially noticeable, given Vita and Virginia’s relationship crossed taboos in the 1920s, and they willingly and openly committed adultery.
Before Vita’s relationship with Virginia began, her husband Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones) and she enjoyed a happy marriage, and in this case, happy is defined as satisfaction from ordinary companionship. Their passion, however, is missing, like walking outside with your keys in hand and discovering that your car has been stolen.
The fire between Vita and Harold has flamed out, and the entire movie feels like this couple’s pedestrian union. For instance, in the first act, Virginia attends her sister Vanessa’s (Emerald Fennell) party. During a quiet portion of the evening, Virginia and others casually gaze at their friend Geoffrey (Rory Fleck Byrne) and Vanessa slow dancing, and they – including the said couple – seem to be looking for sleep rather than enjoying each other’s company.
Cinematographer Carlos De Carvalho paints bright colors, and costume designer Lorna Marie Mugan parades beautiful, vibrant attire that can be found everywhere, but the film’s energy remains low throughout, including the intimate scenes between our two leads.
Look, Arterton and Debicki share zero chemistry. They just don’t work as a couple, even though they individually play their parts of pursuer and pursuee in very convincing fashion.
Ever the socialite and with one eye on human treasures, the lively, gorgeous Vita aggressively chases, or rather hunts down, Virginia, and her intrigue stems from Ms. Woolf’s writing. Artenton delivers her portrayal with genuine smiles and vitality (pardon the pun) combined with an undeniable aura of mischievousness.
As one would expect, Button instructs her makeup department to douse Debicki’s skin with gray, English winter-tones, while the actress rightly includes shades of Woolf’s mental illness that barely hold her vulnerable heart strings.
Instead of including an accompanying string orchestra soundtrack, the film sports modern, electronic beats that feel best appropriate for Saturday night clubbing at 2 a.m. Naturally, the universe carves out places for this music to reside, but these off-putting, pulsating fillers regularly and unsuitably dominate the film’s lulls, and the score includes occasional female gasps for unnecessary reasons.
Speaking of breaths, Button incorporates several extreme closeups of Vita’s and Virginia’s mouths and eyeballs, which begin during the opening scene and continue through the 1-hour 16-minute mark. There may be many, many more of these camera choices, but this particular critic was probably more concerned with digital flashes on his watch during the picture’s last 34 minutes.
The fact that the screenplay is very conversational doesn’t help, but Vita and Virginia do recite their letters to one another while Ms. Woolf resides in England and Ms. Sackville-West – a diplomat’s wife – whisks off to Persia and Berlin. These moments have appealing merit, if one can digest the two actresses staring straight into the camera, which becomes tiresome after a while.
Well, Vita and Virginia’s amorous relationship and platonic friendship lasted quite a while, about 15 years. Vita also became the inspiration for one of Virginia’s most famous novels, and their on-screen story probably argues that toxic masculinity can be a knife’s blade away from troublesome femininity.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.