The biographical drama “Vita & Virginia” manages, in its second half, to present a thorough portrait of one of the most fascinating figures in 20th century literature, the author Virginia Woolf.
To get there, though, director Chanya Button first introduces us to a far less impressive figure: Vita Sackville-West, the socialite and popular author who befriended and bedded Woolf.
Button, co-writing with Eileen Atkins (adapting Atkins’ 1992 play), introduces us first to Vita, played with English refinement by Gemma Arterton. Vita is married to a diplomat, Harold Nicolson (Rupert Henry-Jones), and writes popular travelogues and poetry anthologies. She also has a scandalous reputation for her many affairs, with men and women, which incenses her society-conscious baroness mother (Isabella Rossellini).
Harold is more tolerant of Vita’s wild ways, largely because of his own peccadillos, but he warns Vita not to get too infatuated with Woolf and her bohemian Bloomsbury circle. Vita dives in, though, encountering Woolf (played by Elizabeth Debicki) at a party. Vita pursues Virginia, first through letters in which she makes her desires plain, and eventually in person, inviting Virginia to her country estate.
The movie presents Vita as a libertine, and a bit of a predator, crashing through Virginia’s circle of artists — including her publisher husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando) and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell (Emerald Fennell) — to possess some portion of Virginia’s heart and mind. The result is a rather shallow character, with which Arterton (one of the movie’s executive producers) can do very little, despite great effort.
Debicki’s portrayal of Woolf, on the other hand, is heartbreaking, as she captures both her literary drive and the fragility that bedeviled her. In the movie’s second half, the roles are switched, when Woolf pegs Vita as the model for her gender-bending novel “Orlando,” and suddenly Virginia is taking what she needs from Vita.
The problem with “Vita & Virginia” is that Button tries to present their story as one of equals, with each woman giving and taking in the same measure. But even she must acknowledge, as the story reaches its conclusion, how much more Virginia put into and received from their arrangement.
‘Vita & Virginia’
Opened August 23 in select cities; opens Friday, September 6, at the Megaplex Gateway (Salt Lake City), Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy) and Megaplex at The District (South Jordan). Not rated, but probably R for sexual content and some language. Running time: 110 minutes.