Vita and Virginia only touches the surface of this historical romance
“Madness? What a convenient way to explain away her genius.” As an avid reader and historian I frequently kick myself for not knowing more about the life of Virginia Woolf who is such an interesting and talented figure who is often overshadowed by her struggles with mental illness. Vita and Virginia also made me feel quite guilty for starting Orlando earlier this year and never finishing it. However I was excited to watch this film and get more of an insight into this writer as well as learn about the story behind one of her most acclaimed novels.
Vita and Virginia stars Gemma Arterton as Vita Sackville-West and Elizabeth Debicki as Virginia Woolf. The film, directed by Chanya Button, is inspired by the real life story these two women and the love affair they had that inspired Virginia Woolf’s most successful book Orlando. Vita is a successful writer with a somewhat scandalous lifestyle and who is enamored by the writings of Virginia Woolf. Vita makes an effort to push herself into Virginia’s social circle and becomes a writer for the small publishing company that Woolf and her husband run. Although the women are married they embark on an intense love affair that changes their lives. The story uses many of the real life love letters the women wrote to each other to show how their affair unfolds.
When I am watching a film based on a true story I always want to know how true to the story the film is and I think that is fine, I like doing my research, but one thing that bothered me with this film was that I constantly wondered if I should have known more about the true story to really understand the characters and their behaviors. Vita historically had a scandalous lifestyle and was known to have many different love affairs with both men and women but the way she pursues Virginia felt awkward and uncomfortable to watch, often times Gemma Arterton’s performance as her felt predatory. Maybe this highlights how the true Vita was but at the same time I kept wondering why they made certain character choices like this one as it felt like it took the romance out of the film once they fully give themselves over to each other. Although I thought there was some true chemistry between Arterton and Debicki I am not sure I totally bought them falling for one another, Virginia seemed scared and put off by her pursuits and the next moment she cannot bare to deal with her gone. It also felt that the film was not necessarily explaining what was going on in some pivotal parts of the film; one minute the women seem happy and in love and in the next scene Virginia is writing to Vita and asking why she is not speaking to her.
One thing I did like was how the film looked with its soft day dreamy colors, that combined with the score made me feel like I was in a daze as I was watching it. loved the costume design for the women, Vita has these very masculine outfits often times wearing pants instead of dresses and it looks amazing. I also really enjoyed the score even though I did not entirely feel that it worked for this particular film, it felt sort of disconnected and too modern for the period piece it was scoring. Maybe this has something to do with the theme of the film itself but again it pulled me out of the film whenever the music came in.
Also the way the filmmakers decided to show the women as they are writing letters to one another felt like an interesting choice. Every time they wrote to one another they show the characters staring off or speaking directly into the camera, I like the idea of trying to highlight the women in their writing process but I am not sure it totally worked for me as the audience. One aspect of the film I enjoyed but thought it was underutilized were some of the visual effects. When Virginia became inspired you could see vines growing through the floors or on the walls around her and I thought it actually looked amazing. The only time these more imaginative effects did not seem to work was when Virginia is sick and runs outside and large black birds attack her and encompass her. It seems like the filmmaker was trying to use this to highlight some of the well-known mental health issues that Virginia lived with but it is only done once so it felt there was an inconsistency to the effects work. It also felt like they wanted to touch on many of the social issues at the time; class issues, the treatment of mentally ill women, and the socialist ties of Virginia and her husband but they were simply touched upon and did not go too in depth, which overall felt like a problem with the film on the whole.
I wish I enjoyed this film more because I feel that Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki are really interesting actresses who I want to see in more films. I saw Debicki in Widows last year and she was phenomenal. I also think this is a genuinely interesting story and I want to see more stories like this on screen and I also hope to see more from this director. I thought that the ending of the film was very beautiful and one of the most poetic breakups I have ever seen and it would have felt more meaningful and intense if I had more by in to the progression of their relationship. Although this was not necessarily the movie I was hoping to watch, I have continued thinking about it and feel inspired to read about and research more about these women and their work. I think there is something to be said about a movie that makes me want to put that work in after the fact so I hope others gain this from watching it.
Vita and Virginia opens in Philly theaters today.