Film review: Vita & Virginia

Billie Manning

A visual feast that struggles to dive deeper into the writers' relationship

The love affair of writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf can be traced and followed through the course of more than seven years of love letters, love letters that are so gorgeous and aching that they have been the inspiration previously for a play and now for a film, Vita & Virginia (as well as a Twitter bot which tweets out excerpts every day).
The film charts their relationship from the moment their eyes lock at a party in Bloomsbury, where the costumes are wild and the people in them even wilder. From the start, Gemma Arterton as Vita and Elizabeth Debicki as Virginia are both utterly engaging. Arterton is a whirlwind of purple lipstick and fantastic pantsuits, demanding and wanting and pursuing all with a wicked grin, where Debicki hesitates, thinks, drifts back and forth across the screen in muted greens and blues, at once awkward and graceful. Both actresses use their bodies to great effect: Arterton’s stride swings confidently out next to Debicki’s hunched poses.

Elizabeth Debicki in Vita and Virginia
Elizabeth Debicki as Virginia
The characterisation of Sackville-West as the body of the duo where Woolf is the mind, however, at times means the film falls into the trap of stereotyping Woolf as a mad genius. This wouldn’t be such a problem if it weren’t so exacerbated by the often-unnatural dialogue, which uses phrases from the pair’s letters as regular speech. In using the letters as dialogue rather than keeping it solely to the scenes in which we see the two writing to one another, the film overlooks the vast difference in the way in which we write and the way in which we speak to its detriment, despite thematically discussing the potential pitfalls of writing a real-life as fiction as Virginia does to Vita with Orlando.
Gemma Arterton in Vita and Virginia
Gemma Arterton as Vita

The pleasure of the film mostly derives from watching the rise and fall of the romantic partnership between the two; and it is almost satisfying to see the hungry Vita finally get what she wants and to see Virginia open up and bloom slightly underneath the attention of her lover. But the emotional crescendo is cut short by the feeling that we never quite get past the shallows in the waves of the pair’s characterisations, so their love never seems quite as passionate or believable. This might also have something to do with the fact that we never quite sympathise enough with Vita, whose contributions as a writer are constantly knocked down throughout the film as popular but of little artistic value.
The supporting characters of the polyamorous, bohemian Bloomsbury set are good fun, and there is a darkly charming turn from Rupert Penry-Jones as Vita’s husband. (The best supporting character award, however, has to go to Isabella Rosellini as Vita’s terrifyingly icy mother.) The film is an aesthetic feast, and one where the contextual backdrop provides a good time for picking out recognisable references, but the relationship at its heart for the most part lacks just that.

Vita & Virginia will be released in the UK on 12 July 2019.

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