Movie Review: Arterton dazzles in “Vita & Virginia”

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The famous writer fixed the critically-acclaimed writer with a look, maybe with a hint of pout and about it.

And the critical darling, Virginia Woolf, lured by “her voluptuousness,” if perhaps a tad jealous of her success, of her aristocratic status, was lost in those eyes, those lips.

As the best-selling Vita Sackville-West is played by Gemma Arterton in “Vita & Virginia,” we get it. Oh yes. Arterton’s cinematic nickname, after all, is “Come Hither.”

And that casting and that meeting gives Elizabeth Debicki’s Virginia Woolf another dimension, another expression to play beyond the morose madness and tortured woman of letters she wears on her face in this accurate if occasionally icy account of their love affair.

It was the best of times, it was the headiest of times, a time when women of letters found doors open and fame at their feet, women’s suffrage was new and driving one’s open-top Rolls roadster was a badge of liberation.

As the film makes clear, the UK “between the wars” years were also days of “left handed” marriages, which all of polite British society gossiped about, and “lavendar marriages” which were discussed among that same elite only in whispers.

“Vita & Virginia” is an adaptation of a stage play, which was based on the letters the two women exchanged over decades of romance and post-romantic friendship. The movie tracks their meeting — “What a curious creature I found,” Vita confessed. “A pronounced sapphist…. Snob as I am,” Woolf wrote in her diary.”

It is a film of (somewhat) mutual admiration and clever, clever words, the product of “a wickedly brilliant mind” (Woolf) and a popular poettess and wit, descended from Gypsies (Isabella Rosellini plays Vita’s disapproving Gypsy grande dame mother), a “a sapphist” with scandalous appetites.

Sackville-West was married to a diplomat, published author and confirmed anti-Semite, Harold Nicholson (Rupert Penry-Jones). He, too, preferred the sleeping companionship of his own sex, but their “open marriage” of social unequals worked, despite Vita’s scandalous affairs with women, in spite of Harold’s misguided attempt to “rely…on your discression, Veeti.”

Sackville-West would sell novels of thinly-fictionalized accounts of cross-dressing/same-sex exploits and travels, “a promiscuous exhibitionist,” as her mother described her.

And yet Vita admitted “I want her to admire me,” wanted admission to Virginia’s Bloomsbury circle of painters, writers and intellectuals of various sexual predelictions. And she got it.

Harold might warn Vita “I hear nothing but reports of her madness…She sounds like rather hard work.” But Vita became Woolf’s champion, placing some of her books with Virginia and husband Leonard’s (Peter Fernandino) Hogarth Press, which put the struggling company in the black.

We see evidence of another thing Woolf obtained from Sackville-West — confidence, bucking-up. Woolf’s mental instability, illustrated by hallucinations of plants growing wildly and taking over rooms, an imagined Hitchcockian assault out of “The Birds,” was something Sackville-West helped her with as well.

The smitten Vita and Virginia became lovers, although it was not the easiest affair.

But it did climax with Woolf’s fantastical “biography, “Orlando, “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” one of Sackville-West’s children labeled it.

Stage director turned filmmaker Chanya Button (“Burn, Burn, Burn”) shoots Debicki (“Widows,” “Guardians of the Galaxy”) and Arterton (“Quantom of Solace,” Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”) often in extreme close-ups — overripe lips, eyes-locked for lingering, loving looks, liberating trips to the boudoir.

I like the way Arterton’s Vita, with her put-on plummy aristocratic accent and the confidence that comes with it, puts Virginia on her heels. She comes on softly, humbly.

Virginia — “Why do you think your books sell better than mine?”

Vita — “Popularity was never a sign of ‘genius.'”

To her husband, Vita gave this description — “She was utterly silent until she decided to say something, and then she said it EXTREMELY well.”

But Vita knew her own talent and bluntly, publicly threw that back in the genius’s face.

“Do you ever mean what you say, or say what you mean?”

Arterton’s smoldering, sexual swagger pulls this off.

Debicki’s Woolf veers between haunted and confident, sensual but reluctant (their affair, “this sapphic pageant,” wasn’t about the sex, which we learned about thanks to Vita’s kiss and cuckold and tell (in print) modus operandi).

“We don’t live quietly inside the moment.”

If there’s a chill to the romance, it rests in Debicki and the film’s (common) interpretation of Woolf as aloof, frosty, disturbed and contemptuous, something the historical record doesn’t wholly support.

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This Irish production has its flaws, starting with a grating, modernist,electronic score. Bloomsbury salon gatherings take on the air of a disco-era omni-sexual meat market.

The climax is melodramatic in the extreme, although perhaps accurate.

But “Vita & Virginia” makes a fascinating, mostly-fresh angle to look at these two writers from, rewarding not just for bibliophiles.

And Arterton’s vivid fleshing out of Sackville-West is enough to send you to a bookstore in search of her mostly-forgotten (and sometimes lurid) potboilers and poetry.

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MPAA Rating: unrated, sexual situations

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini

Credits: Directed by Chanya Button, script by Eileen Atkins and Chanya Button, based on Atkins’ play, and the letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. An IFC release.

Running time: 1:50

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