by: Jourdain Searles on September 24th, 2018
When a film’s opening scene contains a bold line like “independence has no sex”, it’s clear you’re in for something fascinating. Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia isn’t simply a cinematic dramatization of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf’s passionate correspondence and extramarital affair—It’s also a meditation on the nature of marriage and a celebration of the liberating power of love.
If I were to describe the film in two words, they would be ‘intellectual erotica’. This is a film where the words spoken by the actresses bite and caress each other. The script, written by Button and Eileen Atkins, is a feast for the ears. Much of the dialogue is lifted from Vita and Virginia’s real-life correspondence, and you can feel the tension pulsing from their words. The lovers often try in vain to be coy with each other, but the truth is, there’s is one of the most obvious affairs ever put to screen. Even before they start sleeping together, their hungry eyes reveal their truth.
Vita & Virginia is a film that doesn’t dwell too deeply on minute period details—as the very modern-sound score often reminds us. The score, composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, mixes classical music and clubby dance beats. To me, this signifies a sort of salute to the queer legacy Vita and Virginia’s relationship is part of. It’s almost like the film isn’t trying to show us what their relationship was—it’s trying to convey what it may have felt like.
The costumes and lavish parlors are there, but the conversation and ideas are modern, expressed bluntly at every opportunity. There is a radical blending of the old and the new at play in the film that fascinated me as a constant viewer of more traditional costume dramas. Adorning the film with roundtable-like discussions of art and sex breathed life in what could have been a more dry and dour tale. As I watched, I found myself thinking of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and A Quiet Passion–both films which experimented with the costume drama biopic formula. I hope this bold tinkering of the form comes into fashion.
As for Vita and Virginia’s dynamic itself, it’s amusingly straightforward. Vita falls in love with Virginia’s prose and her mind and proceeds to pursue her. Even though she has more money and her books sell better, she knows that Virginia is her intellectual better—and that excites her. Gemma Arterton plays Vita as the pushy rich girl, so bored with her own life that she has to keep creating new challenges for herself that go beyond her socially prescribed roles of wife and mother. She makes her hunger for Virginia plain to everyone, including the women’s respective husbands. There’s something so fascinating about the way that Vita refuses to back down or make even the faintest attempt at discretion. As a result, she comes off as an incredibly modern woman, impatiently waiting for everyone to catch up with her.
Virginia, played with elegant remoteness by Elizabeth Debicki, is drawn to Vita for her energy, beauty and dogged persistance. She puts her brooding aside to play hard to get and seems to get a morbid thrill from it. As played by Debicki, Virginia Woolf is a willowy beauty with a cagey disposition. She is always surrounded by loved ones but seems to be surprised that they continue to tolerate her. Virginia is desperate for connection, but can’t seem to stop talking like a writer—even when her relationships depend on her being more candid. For these reasons, she is often misinterpreted as cold, when the truth is that Virginia has more feelings than she knows what to do with. Writing is her way of making sense of it all.
Together Vita and Virginia are electric as a fascinating but ultimately incompatible pair. The same qualities that draw them together are destined to tear them apart—and have a profound effect on each other’s work. That is one of the truest aspects of a story like this. Relationships are often impermanent, but the ripple effect of a couple’s connection is profound and long-lasting. You can never quite rid yourself entirely of a person. Rather, you move on with your life carrying fragments of them. And lucky for us, those fragments ended up on the page. Ultimately, Vita & Virginia works as a gorgeous supplement to both women’s legacies. It’s a thoughtful celebration of their complexity and their love.