Before socialite and writer Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) meets the genius author Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki), the two already feel like they know so much about the other. Sackville-West just finished reading Woolf’s latest book, while Woolf just heard Sackville-West give a radio interview with her husband. But when Sackville-West first sees her literary crush, Woolf is dancing without a care, as the soundtrack plays a weirdly modern, electronic score by Fleabag composer Isobel Waller-Bridge. When Woolf says goodbye to Sackville-West on one of their first visits together, Woolf sees flowers bloom in the distance. It’s never quite made clear if this is an example of her brewing love, her mental illnesses, or maybe a combination of both. But these contemporary touches are few and far between in Vita & Virginia, a stuffy period piece biopic about a literary romance that sucks all the romance out.
Vita & Virginia covers the temporary romantic relationship between Sackville-West and Woolf, a bond that inspired one of Woolf’s most beloved books, “Orlando.” Both Sackville-West and Woolf are married to mostly irrelevant men as more of a matter of convenience than actual love, which allows both couples to seek out their true romantic interests. Sackville-West recently escaped to France dressed like a man with a female lover, a trip that has scandalized her mother, and keeps Vita on a slight edge about her public perception. Woolf, while still considered a struggling writer in some circles, has had her own share of controversy and rumors.
Vita and Virginia fell for each other’s intellect before they ever met, and the screenplay desperately wants the audience to understand the greatness of their wordplay. Based on Eileen Atkins’ one woman play of the same name – in which Atkins also starred as Woolf, one of many times she played the writer on screen and stage – and adapted for the screen by writer/director Chanya Button, Vita & Virginia is completely in love with the language of these two writers. This is mostly to the detriment of the film, as every line feels overwritten and rehearsed, leaving the dialogue and this story of new, surprising love completely stiff.
Much of Vita & Virginia is spoken directly to the camera, as the two write letters to each other, both admiring and hinting subtly at the feelings bubbling under the surface. Atkins’ original play was based on these letters, yet Vita & Virginia seems to have put no strain in trying to adapt this story from the stage to the screen. The reading directly to the screen is always awkward, as are the reaction shots in these moments that are almost entirely emotionless.
The only time Vita & Virginia does have some power in its love story is in the solitary moments spent with Debicki as Woolf. Debicki is quite good here, considering what she’s given. Arterton as Sackville-West is almost too deliberate and loud in her every choice, while Debicki as Woolf is often more quiet and contemplative, allowing for more nuance. As the dynamics in the relationship between Vita and Virginia evolve and shift, as Woolf begins work on “Orlando,” Debicki finally brings this character to life, as she gains power in this affair, while also learning how to love deeply for the first time.
But Vita & Virginia is mostly a clumsy collection of documented events between these two, told in a turgid, unimaginative way. There might have been a great deal of brilliance in the minds of Sackville-West and Woolf, but none of that genius or passion makes it onto the screen.