Film & Television

Vita & Virginia: Literary Love Story Lacks Spark 

The real-life relationship between Woolf and Sackville-West should have made a fascinating film. Vita & Virginia, however, moves too slowly and too quietly. (At an hour and 50 minutes, it feels at least 30 minutes too long.) There are numerous sequences when the two actresses face the camera and recite lines from the authors’ letters. This stagey device feels particularly forced, and Arterton and Debicki, whose work otherwise is quite good, seem devoid of character. Although both women are fine actresses on their own, they don’t connect together with the irresistible passion the material calls for. Arterton’s Vita is vibrant but a bit of a spoiled brat. Debicki’s Virginia is intense but a bit too much the victim. Interestingly, the scene which resonated the most with me in terms of their relationship is when Virginia becomes fed up with Vita’s extracurricular activities and turns the table on her. Forcefully posing Vita for a portrait that will appear in Orlando, Virginia finally seems to be in control. 

The sets and scenery, and especially the costumes by Lorna Marie Mugan, are sumptuous. The film captures the decadence of the 1920s, contrasted often with Virginia’s more somber look and lifestyle. Buttons chose contemporary electronic music (by Isobel Waller-Bridge) for her soundtrack, which is off-putting at first but less noticeable as the film progresses. There are also special effects used to convey Virginia’s psychological state and intermittent mental illness. She is attacked by (CGI) crows; water levels rise as if to drown her; vines and flowers grow through floorboards and up walls. The doctor that her concerned husband brings in diagnoses her with a variation of hysteria. He dismisses her condition as a result of her intelligence and gender. “I sometimes think that women can’t cope with too much gray matter.”

Vita & Virginia is lovely to look at, and the content is interesting from both historical and literary perspectives. But, the relationship at its center is never quite as all-consuming as it should be. Vita is larger-than-life and willing to throw convention to the wind (and what I wouldn’t give for her wardrobe). Virginia is deep, struggling through illness and suffering for her art. But, their love scenes (of which there aren’t many) have a rote quality to them. Neither Vita nor Virginia ever really gets carried away. 

Which means, unfortunately, that the audience never really gets carried away either.

 

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