What makes a great writer? What makes a great love? And what great writer can write greatly about love? These are some of the questions that Chanya Button’s new film Vita and Virgina, about the relationship between writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, tries to tackle. Based on Eileen Atkins’s play of the same name, it examines two uniquely impressive women who seem to have been pulled into each other’s orbit by an inherent magnetism.
Vita (Gemma Arterton) is a woman born of aristocracy and wealth. She faces the obstacles of a woman of her time, but with the privileges that wealth guarantees her. She is a successful novelist, a diplomat’s wife in an open marriage, a mother, a modern woman. She is smart, confident, and charismatic. Virginia (Elizabeth Debicki) seems like the polar opposite. From the first sentence she utters, she establishes herself as a person unlike any other. She has no interest in sharing a thought or feeling, unless it is based in truth and feels worthy of sharing. She is thoroughly unique and impossible to unravel. That is what seems to fascinate Vita. She knows she’s in the company of brilliance and, initially, it’s what we believe attracts her. But in reality, it seems to be the chase, the challenge of trying to win and comprehend someone who seems infinitely unknowable, that is too irresistible to pass up.
The film begins with Vita, a tornado of charisma, colour, and will power, before it shifts to Virginia, still, serious, and troubled. Their relationship is well-known, their letters to each other widely published, so the eventual destination of their romantic relationship comes as no surprise. The film examines the fundamental difference in temperament and circumstance that makes the outcome inevitable. As the story progresses, the viewers’ allegiance cannot help but shift. Vita is beguiling, played with vibrancy by Arterton, against the initial coolness of Woolf.
But once Vita has Virginia on the proverbial hook, and Virginia is consumed by her devotion to Vita, as a viewer, you can’t help but empathize deeply with Virginia. Debicki plays her with such dedication, portraying a woman who had the misfortune of being burdened with both true genius and a mental illness that was often debilitating. A scene in which Virginia suffers a psychotic episode is particularly difficult to watch: the camera doesn’t ever leave Debicki’s face as she struggles to articulate her thoughts, paralysed and choking. At no point is Woolf’s struggle with mental health glamorized and the film steers clear of sending the message that true genius has to come from a broken place. Rather, Woolf was able to share her genius despite the challenges.
Vita and Virgina doesn’t quite know what kind of film it wants to be. It is certainly feminist in its approach and execution, a biography of the two women as writers, lovers, friends, muses, and tormentors. Vita and Virginia’s husbands, played wonderfully by Rupert Penry-Jones and Peter Ferdinando respectively, are relegated to the roles usually inhabited by wives: husbands who love their partners deeply, and though it pains them, step back to let them pursue their desires. But it never becomes quite clear what is at the heart of the story the filmmakers are trying to tell. Too many biographical events are packaged into the story and can often feel rushed.
The second act, when the story shifts to Virginia and her experience of the relationship is where the film truly shines. Supported beautifully by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score, Debicki’s performance of a woman who is strong and vulnerable, deeply insecure and utterly determined, helps to give insight into a truly remarkable human being who struggles with the beautiful impossibility of love. The result is a relatable and devastating experience that, despite its other shortcomings, makes Vita and Virgina a film that stays with you.