The tumultuous emotional, sexual, and literary relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West would make a fascinating movie — it’s a shame that “Vita & Virginia” isn’t it. An ambitious but ultimately stultifying bio-drama, directed by Chanya Button and based on a 1993 play by actress Eileen Atkins, the movie is memorable for its fine central performances and a series of creative choices that must have seemed bold but that play out all wrong.
Sackville-West was a socialite and poet when she met the reclusive Woolf in 1922; the latter was already an established writer with her best work — much of it much influenced by Vita — ahead of her. They were conversely mismatched in class and talent: Vita came from a titled family, with purse strings held by a dragon of a mother, Baroness Sackville (Isabella Rossellini, and would that she had more scenes), while Virginia came from a well-off creative clan. Sackville’s work sold better in their lifetimes but Woolf’s has lasted. Both had open marriages with their respective husbands, and both were involved with the Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, Woolf at dead center and Sackville-West flitting about the fringes.
“Vita & Virginia” envisions the two meeting at a Bloomsbury party, with all the “bright young things” of the era doing their bright young thing. Vita (Gemma Arterton) is a celebrity-stalker who has set her cap on befriending Virginia (Elizabeth Debicki), the latter both shyer and more imperious than her pursuer, as well as understandably wary of this energetic butterfly.
Bizarrely, director Button has chosen to underscore this scene and many that follow with thumping modern electronic dance music drastically at odds with the Jazz Age setting. The intent is obvious — to draw parallels between this century-old love story and today’s queer culture — but it only ensures that “Vita & Virginia” will feel dated within a year or two.
Almost as unwieldy is the creative decision to stage the letters between the two women on which the play (and most of the film) is based as a series of dueling monologues delivered to the camera. Button struggles for a way to de-theatricalize Atkins’s original script, but it resists, and the talk overwhelms “Vita & Virginia” until a viewer’s senses are benumbed.
In the process, you may overlook a brilliant performance by Debicki as Woolf, and a rather brave one by Arterton as Sackville-West. Other characters ebb and flow around the central duo — Virginia’s long-suffering publisher husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), and her painter sister, Vanessa Bell (Emerald Fennell), Vita’s bisexual diplomat spouse (Rupert Penry-Jones) — but the movie is closely attuned to the feverish dynamic in which an unstable artist is drawn out of herself and then betrayed by a callow lover.
There’s a breakdown scene midway through, when Virginia becomes unmoored by the mercurial Vita’s inattentions, that is both quiet and frightening: Debicki shows us a desperate woman’s mind grinding to a halt. The actress is elegant and very tall; she was one of the best things in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” as Jordan Baker, and she nearly swiped last year’s “Widows” from Viola Davis. She is the real deal, and her Virginia has levels of pain and pride that seem to come from an unarticulated psychic wound.
Arterton, by contrast, plays Sackville-West as a shallow, manipulative pill, and she’s very convincing. Whether that’s a conscious decision — whether we’re meant to admire Vita or be put off by her — is never clear (and “both” doesn’t work, either). The disappointment of “Vita & Virginia” is that a complex, fruitful, and bruising relationship between two singular women gets stuck between melodrama and literary mummification. Woolf famously immortalized her friend and lover in what many consider her best novel, “Orlando,” in which a headstrong heroine travels the centuries and switches genders midway through. Based on what we see here, the work was almost absurdly greater than the inspiration.
VITA & VIRGINIA
Directed by Chanya Button. Written by Button and Eileen Atkins, based on the letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Starring Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini. At Kendall Square. 110 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: wild partying by bright young things, sexuality).