Film & Television

Vita & Virginia: Literary Love Story Lacks Spark 

In 1922, popular writer — and infamous bisexual socialite — Vita Sackville-West met the not-yet-legendary Virginia Woolf. She became infatuated, pursuing the brilliant but introverted Woolf relentlessly until the women became lovers. They had a brief but passionate affair, although both were then, and remained, married to men. Over time, their fiery relationship simmered into something more platonic. However, Sackville-West inspired Woolf to write her 1928 masterpiece, the gender-bending, time-traveling Orlando. In her diary, Woolf described the undertaking as, “Half in mock style very clear and plain, so that people will understand every word. But the balance between truth and fantasy must be careful. It is based on Vita.” 

In addition to their published works (Sackville-West was more prolific and in her time more successful than Woolf), the two women wrote countless letters to each other before, during, and after their love affair. It was these letters that Dame Eileen Atkins (Tea with the Dames)  used for her 1992 stage piece Vita & Virginia. It played in the West End with Atkins as Woolf and Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) as Sackville-West, then on Broadway with Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave. The play was well-received, although The Times noted that the language (pulled from actual correspondence) was a bit too precious. “If two orchids were to communicate across a perfumed hothouse,” the review read, “They would surely sound a bit like this.”

Chanya Button, director of the current film, also titled Vita & Virginia, first became aware of Atkins’s script while she was researching Woolf for her graduate studies. As she explained in an interview with Forbes this year: 

“Virginia Woolf is my favorite writer. She really formed my brain in a big way; I read her books from a very young age. But what was so inspiring to me about this particular moment in Virginia’s life is it’s where a woman who history has recognized as being brilliant is found to be vulnerable. Where she used her creativity to save herself from an intimate experience that all of her family and friends were telling her would overwhelm her. Everyone felt this affair with this renowned aristocrat and poet who was notorious would consume her and destroy her. It was a true moment where she could reconcile the difficult experiences of her life and one of her most wonderful novels was written, and it was a novel that would change the course of her career.”

 Button, whose previous film Burn, Burn, Burn is described as “Thelma and Louise meet Casper the Friendly Ghost,” worked closely with Atkins on the movie’s script. In an interesting twist, both Woolf and Sackville-West are listed as screenwriters too; their letters to each other are quoted (a bit too theatrically) throughout the film.

The movie opens with Vita (the striking Gemma Arterton, who is also an executive producer) broadcasting a radio program with her husband, diplomat Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) about the secret to a successful marriage. Their banter is clever and progressive (Vita equates marriage to prison for women) and you can tell they admire and are fond of each other. We soon learn, however, that there are more secrets to their successful marriage than to most. Both enjoy intimate relations with members of the same sex. In fact, Vita has recently raised eyebrows and infuriated her mother (Isabella Rossellini who steals the too few scenes she’s in) by dressing as a man and eloping with another woman. Lady Sackville warns Vita that any further such displays will result in the loss of her liberal allowance as well as custody of her two sons. She insists that Vita cancel publication of her latest work, a travelogue recounting her most recent lesbian adventure.

Meanwhile, Virginia (the ethereal and excellent Elizabeth Debicki) works doggedly in the back room of her husband Leonard’s (Peter Ferdinando) publishing house. She is pensive and self-conscious, a bit of an artistic snob, and plagued by bouts of mental illness and exhaustion. Her Bloomsbury support system, which includes painter sister Vanessa (Call the Midwife) Emerald Fennel), her husband and the gay painter with whom they live, worries about her constantly. Never more so than when the exuberant Vita begins to court her.

Virginia resists at first but is soon drawn in by Vita’s obsessive attention. The two go away together and Vita succeeds sexually where Leonard has apparently failed. Vita juggles her affair with her official duties as Harold’s wife. Virginia writes Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Once Vita is confident that she has won Virginia, she takes on a new lover, much to Virginia’s dismay. Virginia channels her jealousy into her work, and the result, Orlando, is eventually described by Vita’s son as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

 

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