A Complex World of Love, Writing, and Muses in ‘Vita & Virginia’

Chanya Button directs and co-writes Vita & Virginia with Dame Eileen Atkins. The adaptation is a glimpse into the affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West starring Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton respectively. Based on a 1992 play of the same name, the film swirls us into the complex relationships surrounding these two women, their writing, and their muses. (KIZJ: 3/5)

Review by Contributing Editor Katusha Jin

Books are printing, upbeat music pumping, and no time is wasted as we are swiftly introduced to “Vita” (Gemma Arterton), a humorist and popular jazz-age writer. She sits in front of a microphone and opposite her husband, “Harold Nicolson” (Rupert Penry-Jones), as the two wait for their live radio interview about the foundations of a modern day marriage. Vita explains that she views marriage not as a contract set in stone, but rather a much more flexible negotiation than she was brought up to believe. The couple describe that it is more akin to a plant and needs constant nurture. The witty writer, however, makes sure to point out that men often think they are the plant and the woman is the soil, but this is something that leads to an imbalanced relationship. The husband asks her the age-old question of whether she values her career more or her family. With her boldly-colored lips, she smartly responds that the two fields feed different stomachs, and ends the interview strongly stating that “independence has no sex”. The two are not afraid to debate, and we are introduced to the greatly unusual dynamic between them.

Vita sits through an uncomfortable meeting with her mother, “Lady Sackville” (Isabella Rossellini), where the unaccepting and disappointed attitude of the mother is undoubtedly clear. Not only does Lady Sackville order Vita to stop the printing of her next book, but also bans her from going to the Bloomsbury party. Vita shows no defiance, but this is a party where everyone from Hogarth press will attend–a chance for her to meet with the writers and ‘serious minds’ of their society. Needless to say, she dresses up in her flashy white pants and attends. It is at this party that she meets the rumored ‘mad’ writer “Virginia Woolf” (Elizabeth Debicki). Virginia challenges Vita to explain why the latter’s books sell better, and Vita smoothly replies that “popularity was never a sign of genius”. Vita is genuinely in awe of Virginia’s genius. Utterly enamored and craving the approval and respect from this young writer, Vita begins her unapologetic pursuit of Virginia.

Morning arrives and Vita wakens her husband and gushes about her adoration of Virginia over a glamorous, classy breakfast. Vita is a member of a writer’s club, and her first goal was to invite Virginia to join. As Vita pens her invitation, the flirtatious writing correspondence between the two women is born. Away in the printing room, Virginia and her husband, “Leonard Woolf” (Peter Ferdinando), are interrupted when their employee, “Ralph Partridge” (Nathan Steward-Jarrett), runs in complaining that he has been heartbroken and betrayed. As it turns out, his love was with another man. Through this exchange, we see that Virginia disagrees with the view that love between a couple is about monogamy; her husband describes romance as being more about the mystery and “not all together knowing the other person”. Appalled by the rejection from the talented writer, Vita sends Virginia a recent manuscript to read.

An interesting parallel of the relationships between the two women writers and their husbands is drawn. When Vita pays Virginia a visit at the publishing house, the former invites Virginia to go travel with her on a writing trip, and a strange tension emerges from their shared lingering gazes. 

The beauty of stories about Virginia Woolf is that there are so many ways to tell them. This one is told from Vita’s perspective. Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia is an unusual mix of realistic filmic scenes and individual close-ups that break the fourth wall. Eileen Atkins and Button’s adaptation of the 1992 play is a mix between theatre and film. This may be because it is solidly anchored in the letters of correspondence, sometimes forcefully done so.

Elizabeth Debicki gives a very strong performance, but whereby hers has a more filmic style, Gemma Arterton’s is much more theatrical. This clash of style makes it difficult for me to see this as one picture, rather it feels more like two stories with two individual leads. The cinematography by Carlos De Carvalho serves its purpose in capturing the action, but lacks a relationship with its characters that would have given it that extra spark. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score is very unusual–from the get-go its EDM style takes me out of the film and its time period. It is a risky choice, especially when there is already so much going on with the mix of theatrical and filmic performances, and the soft images of the characters breaking the fourth wall. Perhaps the score would have worked had there been less going on elsewhere in the film. Very sensual and placed in a beautifully designed set by Noam Piper, I wish the style of the film were more streamlined and the emphasis was even more so about their relationship with writing rather than the muddled intrusive ones with each other. On a side note, I much preferred the last third of the film.

© Katusha Jin (August 23, 2019) FF2 Media

Photo Credits: Nick Wall and Bernard Walsh

Q: Does Vita & Virginia pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes! The film revolves around two women, and their conversations vary from writing to parties, trips abroad, and their relationships with each other.


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As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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