So few women are allowed to be cads onscreen that spotting one is as an exotic and unexpected a sight as a flamingo on the underground. Gemma Arterton’s Vita Sackville-West is one such creature – carnal and careless – Caitlin Moran’s lady sex pirate made flesh. In short…a cad. And it is a joy to behold.

As, in fact, is Vita & Virginia in its entirety. Together director Chanya Button and her (fabulous) co-writer Eileen Atkins (who penned the original play in 1992) have crafted a singular love letter to the relationship between Virginia Woolf and the delightful cad who inspired Orlando and remained her lifelong friend.

Predictably Virginia (Elizabeth Debicki) is less accessible than the irrepressible Vita, about whom we have learned scandalous intimacies within moments. They meet at a party – a gathering of the outrageous Bloomsbury set – Vita has inveigled an invitation solely to meet Virginia. Virginia remains emotionally detached from the crowd, even as it embraces her. An ethnographer observing the interactions to better understand.

When the two women are finally alone together Vita’s matte scarlet cat-that-got-the-cream smile is utter perfection. Yet, as the friendship slowly evolves Virginia is undoubtedly the one with the power. Frustrating Vita’s efforts to overwhelm her by being consistently underwhelmed. Or simply not present at all.

We first encounter Vita bickering with her husband over the nature of independence in marriage on a live radio show. The invitation into Virginia’s cloistered world brings us into the publishing house she and husband Leonard (Peter Ferdinando) run and behind the closed door of Virginia’s writing room. Cinematographer Carlos De Carvalho making art of the printing blocks as he sweeps us through.

vita and virginiaFor all Vita’s openness, it is Virginia who comes across as the adventurer in the opening chapters of this story because her feelings are painful to her and so reluctantly expressed yet she dares to feel and share them anyway. When Vita’s indulgent husband Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones) feels his wife has pushed society’s credulity far enough he takes her away and, though frustrating to Vita, their parting is a gift to Virginia.

As she had so often in her life Virginia uses her pen to reveal what is in her heart. Gradually entrusting Vita with access to her hopes and fears. Early on we have seen what it is to walk in Virginia Woolf’s shoes, the crawling tangible horror she feels when her anxiety awakens. The powerlessness those around her experience when the darkness overwhelms and her very words disappear.

Initially, the careful poise of Elizabeth Debicki’s performance is somewhat underwhelming. Her striking face a distraction from the ‘real’ Virginia one has come to expect. But gradually we realise that the poise is the poise of the real Virginia – born of the incredible effort it takes for her just to get through the day without screaming aloud or running away. Ms Debicki shows her mastery of the role as Virginia’s glacial disinterest and beauty are suddenly enlivened by the extraordinary, jagged chaos of her inner life.

There is an iconic photograph of the young Virginia Woolf taken by George Charles Beresford in 1902 which has the same expression and energy captured here. It is immediately apparent why Vita’s joie de vivre and social butterfly lifestyle were so enchanting to her. More admirably, Chanya Button is able to show us why (after her superficial crush had passed) Vita drew so much from Virginia too.

After their affair, Virginia famously went on to immortalise her lover in the novel Orlando and the pivotal scene in which she turns her broken heart into literary innovation and her love for Vita back into an anthropologist’s curiosity is masterful. This female written female-driven drama is brave (or interested) enough to explore the intersection between sexuality, creativity and despair. And linger there.

While the supporting cast gives sensitive, nuanced, performances (particularly Rupert Penry-Jones), Vita & Virginia is the joy it is because of its leads. Lent a contemporary vibrancy by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music and Lorna Marie Mugan’s costumes, the film is lyrical and lovely and will linger with you long after the lights come back on.

Vita & Virginia opens across the UK on July 5th