Frameline43 Film Review: “Vita and Virginia”

The opening scene of Vita & Virginia, Chanya Button’s look at the literary lesbian love affair between legendary writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf baits all of us who have been eagerly awaiting this film. Gemma Arterton’s Vita declares during a public radio segment alongside her husband that she that marriage is a prison for women, along with a slew of other bold statements about the liberation of our gender. 

Listening with rapt attention is Virginia Woolf, squirreled away in her secluded writing room, huddle in front of her radio. Vita quips about wanting to meet Virginia just before signing off. Every lesbian in the theater is suddenly on the edge of her seat.

However enticing this bait might be, the rest of the film never quite manages to hook you entirely, and it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why. Visually, Vita & Virginia is a marvel to watch. The cinematography is gorgeous, the stark contrast between the way of life of both writers is established and apparent, and the love scenes are steamy yet tender.  Arterton is addictive as the staunch feminist and sapphic addict, parading around in her trendy, androgynous outfits and seducing women left and right. I would love to see an affair between her and Colette.

Image courtesy of TIFF

Elizabeth Debicki’s portrayal as the enigmatic Virginia Woolf is tremendous. She exudes the air of a tormented but brilliant soul, sometimes as awake as a woman can get, other times perpetually lost within herself. The moments the film attempts to depict Virginia’s periods of fits of madness are tinged with an almost cartoonish quality. CGI vines grow speedily from every angle, or crows swarm at her in acute Alfred Hitchcock fashion.

These drastic, out of place shifts from the ambiance established by the rest of the film seems effective in theory, but they just don’t work in the moment. Combined with the syncopated beats from the original score that contrast the time period completely, the rhythm of the film feels like it’s continuously disrupted, resulting in a viewing experience that makes it difficult to get lost in the established world of 1920s London.

Aside from the physicality of their relationship, which unfolds predominately in one scene, the steady growth of Vita and Virginia’s affection for one another skips beats throughout, requiring viewers to have established knowledge of the culmination of their relationship and only providing a sort of highlight reel. Holes are left in places that create a dissonance between their in-person interactions and the conversations they have in their letters. 

These correspondences lose their intimacy and emotion when read by their authors as they directly face the screen. Each woman speaks the words of her letter aloud, to the audience instead of to the paper in confidence and security. As a result, the epic love notes are diluted and a distraction to the moments that are intended to serve as the framework for the film. 

The aforementioned framework is a fascinating one when you look at the relationship between these two women in a vacuum. They are so starkly different, yet created permanent imprints on one another’s life and work. 

Vita & Virginia is a marvelous and mesmerizing love story that should have been brought to screen for the world to see, and that is a win in and of itself.  During a year that’s ripe with lesbian period piece romances, this film might get a bit lost behind others like Colette and Tell it to the Bees, but hopefully in time will be viewed as an important benchmark in lesbian cinema.