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by Rebecca M. Alvin

Top Image: Elizabeth Debicki as Virginia Woolf. Courtesy of IFC Films.
An IFC Films release.

There are all sorts of relationships, affairs, and arrangements two people can have. Even relationships that seem to the outside world to be well defined, such as marriage, can often have complexities that conflict with the seemingly simple label. And in times and places where sexual orientations and preferences are strictly governed by what is socially acceptable, romantic and sexual relationships may be masqueraded as platonic or hidden away. In the world of writers and lovers Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, as portrayed by Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton, respectively, in Chany Button’s new film Vita & Virginia, the titular characters become involved in an affair that is neither hidden nor entirely accepted.

In the film, when they meet, it is Vita who is most intrigued by Virginia, but as often happens in romantic relationships, the tables turn and Virginia is the one who finds herself utterly distracted by Vita. Some of the best moments in the film feature Virginia describing the longing she feels, especially during intervals when Vita is traveling with her husband. And earlier in the relationship, after the two women have first slept together, Virginia describes to her sister Vanessa (Emerald Fennell) her experience of sex as the most “utterly physical experience” she’s ever had and one that lingers long after in the body as a sensual memory that cannot be shaken. It is not only the beauty and weight of the words spoken (the screenplay is written by Button, adapted from Eileen Atkins’s book and also includes the actual letters of Woolf and Sackville-West), but also Debicki’s delivery that makes these moments stand out.

While Debicki’s portrayal of the brilliant Woolf is stunning, bringing out the author’s brilliance and vulnerability all at once, Arterton’s Sackville-West is less appealing. She is selfish, spoiled, and irritating, and one wonders what it was that Woolf saw in her. Of course, this is often the case in real life, as well. How many times have you come across a couple where one is infinitely more interesting, beautiful, and kind than their mate who strikes you as dull, self-absorbed, and unremarkable?

Vita & Virginia excels in showing not only the relationship between these two women but also their relationships with their husbands and the relationships between other minor characters and their own spouses and lovers. It is a portrait of a specific love affair but it also sheds light on the many varieties of love and sexuality that can and do exist without the labels we so often wish to slap onto them.

Beautifully shot and edited, Vita & Virginia is an intelligent film about two real women that doesn’t fall into the usual pitfalls of biopics. By focusing intently on their relationship and the book Woolf ultimately wrote about Vita, Orlando, we are able to contemplate the nature of love and lust, with all their obsessive and consuming qualities, and also fathom how we live through such intensity and even grow stronger through exposing our vulnerabilities.

Vita & Virginia (NR, 110 mins.)  is screening at Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., Provincetown, through October 20, Wednesday & Sunday, 7 p.m.; Thursday, 2 & 7 p.m., and Friday & Saturday, 2 p.m. Tickets are available at the door or online at watersedgecinema.org.

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