Isabella Rossellini, left, and Elizabeth Debicki, right, star in “Vita & Virginia.” (IFC Films)
Reporter

Rating: (1.5 stars)

The English actress and writer Eileen Atkins debuted a stage version of “Vita & Virginia” — a play about the love affair between writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, based on 20 years of their written correspondence — in 1994. In a review of the play, which starred Vanessa Redgrave as Vita and Atkins as Virginia, the New York Times found fault with the production’s static staging, which interspersed infrequent face-to-face encounters between the women with a simple recitation of text. “A couple of lecterns would have done the job just as well,” the Times snarked. (A 2008 revival dispensed with the pretense of human interaction entirely, featuring actresses reading from scripts set on side-by-side music stands.)

A new film version of the play, directed Chanya Button from a script co-written with Atkins, opens up the story a lot, setting scenes in the two characters’ homes and elsewhere, and including conversations with the women’s husbands and various members of the bohemian Bloomsbury Group: painters Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell (Virginia’s sister), among others. But the title characters, who kindled a brief romance and carried on a much longer friendship, still feel like a couple of specimens preserved in glass jars. They can see each other, but they hardly seem to touch, even when they’re in the same room — or bed — together. True to its epistolary roots, the film still features many interludes of the actresses (Gemma Arterton as the racy Vita and Elizabeth Debicki as the more reserved and depressive Virginia) quoting from the writers’ letters as they stare straight ahead into the camera.


Gemma Arterton Vita Sackville-West and Elizabeth Debicki star as the title characters, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, respectively, in “Vita & Virginia.” (IFC Films)

It hardly makes for scintillating cinema, even given the whiff of scandalousness with which Button and Atkins lay out the stages of Vita and Virginia’s relationship: flirtation, seduction, consummation, then a kind of sisterly companionship. Only Isabella Rossellini, playing Vita’s mother — so shocked by her daughter’s previous fling with the socialite Violet Trefusis — manages to convey anything like drama. Even a subplot addressing Virginia’s psychological breakdowns, probably because of bipolar disorder, plays out with an air of clinical detachment, and does little to engage the audience or shed light on who these women really were. An on-screen title card at the end of the film refers to Woolf’s 1941 death, strangely, without mentioning that it was suicide.

“Vita & Virginia” may be about two fascinating characters, but it’s also case of words, paradoxically, obscuring the real people who wrote them.

Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains a sex scene. 110 minutes.