VITA & VIRGINIA. Country: Ireland – UK. Director: Chanya Button. Screenwriter: Eileen Atkins, based on letters between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West. Cast: Elizabeth Debicki, Gemma Arterton, Isabella Rossellini. Language: English. Release Date: August 23, 2019. Runtime: 110 minutes. Venue: Quad Cinema.
I’m sitting here s bit at a loss of words. While I love the topic of movies based on the somewhat libertine writers from the beginning of the last century — who today would not be a bit out of place between swingers and pansexuals — the somewhat stilted while gorgeous looking (and badly titled) Vita & Virginia arrives a bit dead in the water. Sure, it has an elegant look that is equal parts Merchant-Ivory at their gayest (think Maurice) and equal parts anything you would see come Massterpiece Theatre. The problem is, that the movie is being marketed as the “fascinating love story between socialite and popular author Vita Sackville-West and the now celebrated Virginia Woolf”.
Reader, I am going to say that Vita & Virginia is not anything vaguely fascinating, or sexy, or sensual, certainly not even tawdry. I would have tolerated tawdry, sordid, if in fact these two women had had such a relationship. [They did not.] I’m a bit… disappointed that Eileen Atkins would take the letters of both Sackville-West and Woolf and use this as the sole basis for the entire movie. In this approach, Atkins’ script turns the love affair between the women into a series of awkward meets where the extroverted and assertive Vita (played boldly by Gemma Arterton), upon seeing the alluring but distant Virginia at a party, decides she has to have her. Her husband, Henry Nicolson (Rupert Henry-Jones), also bisexual (although it’s not central to the plot or real life events), warns, “She’s rather hard work,” He’s not wrong.
Virginia Woolf as played by Elizabeth Debicki comes across as a woman that is so withdrawn she could be mistaken for her own shadow. Perhaps the real Virginia Woolf was in fact, this introverted — she certainly had some psychological damage done to her as a child, which informed her of her own adult experiences and was also bipolar. When we see her, we truly wonder what it was that would have attracted the likes of someone as sophisticated as Vita to someone diametrically different to her as Virginia. And nowhere does the movie or the script delve into the aspects of this on again off again love affair that eventually morphed into a lifelong friendship that pushed both women to create the best of their literary work.
This is a shame; I would have wanted to see more bonding, more density, more gravity to the friendship and the love between both women. As it is, the movie prefers to remain in a watery stance, lovely to look at, at times a bit staid, narrating a love affair through tight closeups of eyes and lips, peppered in a weird electronic soundtrack completely inappropriate for this movie and where both women produced some of their strongest literary work, Even Woolf’s own Orlando gets muddled into a stiff production that really never comes alive. That would have been a novel within letters within a cinematic treat!