Adapted from Eileen Atkin’s 1994 play of the same name, Vita and Virginia is based on the real-life romance between aristocratic socialite and author Vita Sackville-West and literary icon Virginia Woolf. With a scandalous romance, the glamour of the 1920s, and famous works of literature, Vita and Virginia’s story in the right hands could have been a very special film. Unfortunately, despite some strong acting and beautiful cinematography, this film is an uneven mess that never quite comes together.
When we first meet Vita (Gemma Arterton) it’s hammered into us that she’s a thoroughly modern woman; she drives her own car, wears pants, declares proudly that “Independence has no sex.” When Vita goes to a party hosted by, as her mother (Isabella Rosselini) describes, “bohemian communist socialists” that she meets the elusive Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki).
It’s made clear from their first meeting that their relationship will be a sexual one; Vita observes Virginia dancing from across the room with a decidedly male gaze. Virginia, as the object of desire, acknowledges that gaze and welcomes it.
Arterton and Debicki do what they can to save the film with their performances. Arterton is more than capable of showcasing the charm and insatiable lust of Vita, who while in an open marriage, had affairs with both men and women alike. And Debicki (who should have broken out after the criminally under-seen Widows) gives the strongest performance in the film. She is so good here she makes you forget all about a certain Australian actress who won an Oscar for portraying the same woman.
But despite these performances, the film falls apart under the direction of Chanya Button. While the melodic electro score (by Isobel Waller-Bridge) is beautiful and perhaps meant to show these women were not of their time, it takes you out of the story. The same goes for the decision to have the women read their letters to each other aloud while looking directly at the camera. It’s overly stagey and completely unnecessary.
And then there’s the magical realism that’s thrown in to show Virginia’s increasingly unstable mental state. If it had been used all throughout the film perhaps it would have made more sense, but only used a few times it doesn’t work. Not to mention that Debicki is a more than capable performer who could have showcased Virginia’s bipolar disorder without a scene where a flock of birds who aren’t really there attack her.
The real-life Vita and Virginia continued a friendship long after their romance fizzled, until Virginia’s death in 1941, which for some reason, Button decided not to mention in the final title card was a suicide, although Virginia talks about death throughout the film.
Their relationship inspired one of Virginia’s most popular books, Orlando. If you’re curious about these fascinating women and their influence on each other, I recommend you read that book (or see the 1992 Tilda Swinton film adaptation) instead.