Roles in Retrospect #6 – Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, and ‘Vita & Virginia’ (2018)

After a brief hiatus from this column, finding the perfect focus to return with for June’s edition initially proved to be a challenging task. That’s when I thought of Vita & Virginia, a film that had been sitting on my watchlist for some time and features not one but two actresses whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past— Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki. Arterton’s portrayal of a reclusive writer in World War II-set Summerland (2020) and the statuesque Debicki’s command of the screen in crime thriller Widows (2018) are two specific performances that stand out in my mind; ironically, their respective characters in these films both happen to be named Alice. Since the two star together in Vita & Virginia, sharing the screen more often than not, I’ve chosen to focus on both Arterton and Debicki here rather than single out an individual performance.

Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki as Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf in a still from 'Vita & Virginia'. They are in a greenhouse, with Arterton wearing a vest, top, and trousers, as Debicki stands tall above her in a long yellow dress. The two are surrounded by plants.
Image courtesy of Bl!nder Pictures

Given the film’s sapphic subject material, it also feels like an appropriate choice to reflect on for Pride month. An imaginatively told period drama directed by Chanya Button, Vita & Virginia explores the relationship between historical writers — and lovers — Vita Sackville-West (Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Debicki). Both actresses are compelling in their respective roles, with the women they each embody a complete contrast to one another. Arterton lights up the screen as the flirtatious and bold Vita, who doesn’t hesitate to go after what she wants and has unashamedly had many a female conquest. Debicki quietly shines as Virginia, the more aloof and introspective of the two women, often lost in her thoughts and locking herself away to write. What is particularly interesting to watch though is how Vita and Virginia inform and inspire one another’s state of being, something made evident whether they’re physically together or apart.

The relationship between the two women is characterized by a sense of unobtainability due to their being physically and emotionally withdrawn from one another at varying times. However, in the fleeting moments when these metaphorical walls are down, the chemistry between them is undeniable. Arterton and Debicki are capable of making a simple look or lingering touch feel charged with an underlying sensuality, the words Vita and Virginia write to one another laced with desire. And while there’s a substantial height difference between the British actress and her Australian counterpart, this difference in stature never comes across as feeling awkward because of how naturally they play opposite one another.

Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton as Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West in a still from 'Vita & Virginia'. The two women sit across from one another, with Debicki wearing a flowing dress and sitting in a pensive pose as she studies Arterton. Arterton wears a shoulderless silky gown, facing Debicki.
Image courtesy of Bl!nder Pictures

There’s a pivotal scene in the film in which it feels as though the tables have turned with regards to Vita and Virginia’s dynamic as creatives. Writer becomes muse as Vita brings out an intense passion within Virginia, a character transformed in this moment through the sudden vivacity Debicki imbues her with. Arterton appears almost meek by comparison, with Vita shown to feel strikingly vulnerable as the object of Virginia’s gaze. To me, it feels as though this versatility is where the true strength of both actresses’ performances lies, within their ability to play both sides of the coin with an emotional truth. Vita & Virginia is often overlooked within the canon of sapphic films, but Arterton and Debicki’s performances alone make it an enthralling watch.