Greetings again from the darkness. The historical landscape of relationships is littered with the remains of artist couples who began with a cosmic connection and ended with a sonic boom. Add in the socially toxic matter of same-sex attraction from a century ago, and you have a starting point for the romance-friendship-inspiration between writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf. Director Chanya Button co-wrote the script with Eileen Atkins, and it’s adapted from Ms. Atkins play and the personal letters of Virginia and Vita … correspondence that covered many years and hundreds of letters.
Gemma Arterton (TAMARA DREWE, 2010 and QUANTUM OF SOLACE, 2008) stars as writer Vita Sackville-West, a successful poet, novelist, and columnist. Vita was also known for her free spirited ways, and sometimes scandalous behavior. Virginia Woolf is played by Elizabeth Debicki (“The Night Manager”, THE GREAT GATSBY), and she does really nice work capturing the troubled genius, and the glimmers of hope during her time with Vita. The two women were so very different in their approach to life and writing, although each faced their own challenges.
We see their first meeting, and the immediate enchantment that occurs as their eyes meet across the room. However, what makes their relationship interesting is the long and winding path to consummation. The interesting parts come as Vita toys with the fragile Virginia, though it’s clear their connection is quite strong. Though the connection was strong, the relationship was quite complex. Vita was a fan of Virginia’s talent. Virginia was an admirer of Vita’s strength and confidence. They seemed to push each other – sometimes for the better, other times for the worse.
The film opens as Ms. Woolf’s book “Jacob’s Room” is being typeset and printed. It’s quite an artistic way to show the mechanics of the process, and credit goes to Cinematographer Carlos De Carvalho for a segment that would typically be little more than filler. We learn about Vita’s secretly “open” marriage to diplomat Harold Nicholson (Rupert Penry-Jones) and her constant battle with her mother Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini) over scandals and the family reputation. Virginia’s husband Leonard (Peter Ferdinando) runs their printing business, and is seen as vital to his wife’s emotional stability, despite the void in other marital aspects. Virginia’s artist sister Vanessa Bell (Emerald Fennell) is quite an interesting character whose backstory (also a part of the Bloomsbury Group) is teased enough that she might deserve her own film.
The film features a couple of memorable lines of dialogue, both spoken by Vita. During a BBC radio program she boldly claims “Independence has no sex”, and in an early discussion with Virginia states “Popularity is no sign of genius”. Vita’s brazen step traveling as a man with her previous lover Violet Keppel is mentioned, but mostly this is focused on the class differences and the ‘snatched moments’ for Vita and Virginia. Vita’s exotic spirit and Virginia’s struggle with mental health are made clear (even using special effects for the latter). “Visions” of conversations bring the words on the letter pages to life, though it does seem that the filmmakers played things a bit too safe in order to capture a mainstream audience. The music of Isobel Waller-Bridge (Phoebe’s sister) brings a contemporary feel but it’s at times in contrast to the high gloss presentation. For the women who wrote and inspired the amazing novel “Orlando”, and led one of the more tumultuous historical lesbian affairs, it could be argued that they deserved a bit more risk taking on the big screen. Still, “X” marks the spot for Virginia’s writing room, and we do understand why discretion might be the right call.