Vita and Virginia
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Vita and Virginia

One reason that the great Virginia Woolf has proven resistant to the flattening instincts of the straight-ahead, birth-to-death biopic to date is that there are so many ways into the story of her life, and each aspect seems to have its emblematic text. Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of “The Hours” with its focus on the restrictive social roles that women have historically been forced to play, took “Mrs. Dalloway” as its central motif. And now, Chanya Button’s “Vita & Virginia,” an exploration of Woolf’s Le Grand Bain (Elizabeth Debicki) 10-year, up-and-down affair with novelist and socialite Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton), loosely organizes itself around the writing of “Orlando,” a novel inspired by Sackville-West in which the title character, born a man, spontaneously changes sex at about 30 years of age.

As a partial glimpse at a multifaceted personality, Button and screenwriter Eileen Atkins, drawing sometimes over-literal inspiration from the letters the pair wrote to each other, thankfully make no particular claim to offering a definitive portrait. They largely steer clear of psychologizing Call Me by Your Name and scarcely even obliquely reference Woolf’s death by suicide at the age of 59 (though Button cannot resist prettifying Woolf’s incipient mental illness with some semi-surreal interludes in which exotic vines and mystical flowers burst through the walls and floors).

Instead, aside from the creamy, fresh, bright tones of Carlos De Carvalho’s photography, and the surprising, but successfully anachronistic melodic electro score from Isobel Waller-Bridge, it seems that Button, in just her second feature, will allow the lesbian angle to set the film apart from its period-drama brethren and otherwise won’t do too much to air out those stuffy, damask-curtained rooms. Which makes it all the more surprising that “Vita & Virginia” should, due in large part to one astonishing performance, give us an impression of Woolf that is so much bigger than the relatively contained story the film tells, Judy and the relatively familiar format in which it unfolds.

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