An odd historical documenting the lives of Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf nee Bell and, by extension, the Bloomsbury Group. Unlike many such views into that period, the focus of this 3-part story is on Vanessa, whose life is emblematic of the philosophies the sisters were a part of, but only she really tried to live. Going in, however, I had no idea what the story was about. In fact, it wasn’t until the second installment that I had a clue who we were dealing with. I cannot tell if this was intentional, my own lack of education, or simply bad writing. It did have the effect of letting me see these people “become” famous from somewhat obscurity. On the other hand, it left me utterly confused as I then had to rethink and identify everyone in the cast.
And that is harder than you imagine as this piece is shot in three time periods and with changing actors. While there is some game attempt to help us keep them and their convoluted relationships clear, it is a massive effort to do so for the viewer. The more you know going in, the clearer the events and situations will be.
James Norton (Grantchester) and Phoebe Fox (Woman in Black 2) are the core of this story. Each struggles with being true to both themselves and their philosophies to the very end. They are surrounded by a host of actors that you’ll recognize, but none of who stand out enough to mention; which isn’t to imply they’re bad, they’re just not enough of a focus. Though, I will admit that the older version of Vanessa, played by Eve Best (The Honourable Woman), is a particularly good pick-up of the younger character.
Ultimately, the reason for the story is explained in the last few minutes of the 3 hours, and it is oddly simple. The journey getting there is interesting, certainly with some wonderful insights into the politics and mores of the times, but it isn’t the best crafted piece for those completely unfamiliar with the players because the players are part of the point.