After decades of LGBT themes being whitewashed in period and even contemporary dramas, it seems the cinema industry is making up for lost time with a glut of films reaching back into our history books to breathe new life into the hidden stories and romances that had been hitherto straight-jacketed.
Vita & Virginia, which opened the BFI Flare Film Festival in London this week, comes off the back of the likes of LGBT-themed Colette starring an excellent Keira Knightley, indie-flick Lizzie about axe-murderer Lizzie Borden with Chloe Sevigny and of course the award-sweeping The Favourite from Yorgos Lanthimos, exploring the triangle of sex and power politics between Queen Anne and two of her female staff.
Now comes this 1920-set biographical romance, which depicts the love affair between famed writer Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, played by Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton, and forms a passion project for director Chanya Button, adapted by Button and Eileen Atkins from the latter’s 1992 play of the same name.
Their story is told through the words of the real letters that passed between the pair, either read aloud between the two or played out through the dialogue, with burgeoning passion and admiration, frustration, pain and despair all captured in illustrious and evocative poetic language. Arterton’s Vita deliciously alternates between vivacious, convincingly irresistible charm and infuriating thoughtlessness, but its Debicki’s performance as Virginia that is particularly committed, delineating the subtleties and extremes of Virginia’s mental state in a performance akin to Nicole Kidman’s portrayal in The Hours.
The film’s triumph beyond the strength of the palpable chemistry between these two actresses is the exquisite attention to detail in the beautiful costumes and pristine set design, the carefully lit indoor spaces and expansive shots of English countryside. Button self-consciously allows the period era to collide with the contemporary, most notably in the use of electronic beats that recalls Baz Luhrmann’s approach to the soundtrack in The Great Gatsby. A sense of the present day is also reflected in how candidly the characters discuss sexuality and sex within their bohemian bubble.
The feature is not without its flaws – the creative license taken sometimes stretches credulity and anachronisms jar – but overall it’s a moving, visceral manifestation of this hidden romance that seeps into the conscious and lingers there well after the credits roll.
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 22nd March 2019.
Vita & Virginia opened at the BFI Flare Film Festival and will be released nationwide on 12th July 2019.
Watch a clip from Vita & Virginia here: