Vita and Virginia (2018)

Vita and Virginia by Chanya Button is a literary biopic doesn’t do justice to its iconic protagonists.

Women in Love

by Alexa Dalby

Vita and Virginia

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Vita and Virginia is set in a between-the-wars period haze in the years when Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West became lovers. Both had accepting husbands (Peter Ferdinando as Leonard Woolf and Rupert Penry-Jones as Harold Nicholson).

Virginia Woolf was already a celebrated and ground-breaking novelist. Vita Sackville-West too had written novels, though definitely not of the same ilk, and in the film she yearns to meet Woolf, the female celebrity. An extrovert character, she inveigled herself into Woolf’s literary circle and got her way. And more – it appears she was the instigator of their lesbian relationship. It was a love affair that flared for few years, then cooled into a lifelong friendship.

The film is based on their letters to each other. The result is stagey declarations of their written words to camera by each woman separately. Throughout, even the dialogue between characters is stilted and lacking in dramatic tension or significance. This may have worked in Eileen Atkins’ original stage play, but it doesn’t work cinematically. It’s lifeless.

In fact, the entire film is a travesty of the lives of two brilliant women. Both actors (Elizabeth Debicki as Woolf and Gemma Arterton as Sackville-West) are horribly miscast. Woolf is diminished by the screenplay to a pathetic, dependent, childlike shadow, droopily dressed in drab frocks. Sackville-West is a Downton Abbey above-stairs character gone wrong in flamboyant, over-the-top outfits. What’s noteworthy in a film about two such amazing women should be the contrasts in their characters and qualities not their clothes.

The film is dominated by intrusive, trancey, anachronistic electronic music by Isobel Waller-Bridge. Why? To give it contemporary relevance? There are two incongruous fantasy sequences where a lamp post sprouts foliage when the two women first meet and crows torment a distressed Woolf that seem to be intended to lift it from a simple narrative into an impressionistic artistic biography. There’s recurrent imagery of water, hinting prematurely at Woolf’s eventual suicide.

The unique characters of the Bloomsbury group don’t rise above pallid stereotypes. Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell (Emerald Fennell), her husband Clive (Gethin Anthony) and Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen) never come to independent life. And Isabella Rossellini has a bewildering cameo as Lady Sackville, Vita’s mother.

Vita and Victoria could (should?) have been a wonderful addition to feminist literary film. But it’s just so, so disappointing.

Vita and Virginia is released on 5 July 2019 in the UK.

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