Some costume dramas excite in their mere opulence, bringing to life a former era with delicious design elements; some view their period ironically, winking at their subjects with anachronisms to appeal to modern audiences. Vita and Virginia, director Chanya Button’s take on Virginia Woolf’s affair with writer Vita Sackville-West, excels in its refusal to be stuffy by fusing elements of the two approaches. It’s something left-of-center in a traditional costume drama’s clothing, and arrestingly so.
We’re introduced to Gemma Arterton’s Vita as she is attempting to break into the more avant garde social circle that has Elizabeth Debicki’s Woolf at the center. Virginia has the innovation (and resulting notoriety) she covets, but their relationship quickly turns lustful as the two become further intertwined. As Virginia’s mental health begins to deteriorate with the obsession of their affair and Vita’s transient attention, the film shifts focus to Woolf – ultimately crafting one of her masterpieces, Orlando, with Vita as the inspiration.
Vita and Virginia isn’t quite the revisionist period piece seen from the likes of Baz Luhrman and Joe Wright, but its design is excitingly atypical to the kind of film it first presents itself to be. While the composition is deceptively traditional on its surface, Button infuses the film with a gorgeous electronic-inflected score by Isobel Waller-Bridge with uncommonly, intuitively fevered editing from Mark Trend. The film’s overall take slyly breaks the rules of convention without the extremity of grander productions, lending the film a light touch with the big emotions of Woolf’s mental state. Instead, the film’s minor affectations give it a spiritual edge, and attunes it more to her creative point of view.
Woolf’s illness isn’t glamorized in this depiction, though some fantasy sequences aren’t always as smoothly rendered as the rest of the film’s embodiment of her state of being. Debicki is as astounding as ever, depicting Woolf as two composed and raw nerve selves at odds with eachother in her own body – her mind being her salvation and isolation tank. Where lesser films reduce their famous authors to passive, problematic vessels for insanity, here the film involves us as Debicki and Button truly try to understand Woolf’s experience.
Before the relationship turns cold, Debicki is funny, sexy, and unencumbered opposite Arterton’s stuffy and posturing Vita. Arterton plays her in opposite trajectory Woolf’s arc, as if tap dancing her way through social circles and steadily slowing her pace as her position rises. The transformation in her performance is more subtle, allowing her selfishness to come out as Vita eases as she accumulates more social wealth. It’s a remarkable duet of performances moving in opposite directions to reveal human dimensions to their literary figures.
Ultimately, the film is a very digestible, if invigorating, watch built to innovate the biopic period piece just to the left of center. Though its conclusion is more centered on Woolf’s literary accomplishment in typical biopic fashion, the film is arresting in its emotionality and wise in its depiction of queer subversion and survival.