Virginia Woolf’s legacy on literature is immeasurable, but the mythic figure of Woolf herself casts a shadow almost as mighty. Edward Albee’s most famous play evokes her name as shorthand for the unanswerable question that plagues a broken marriage; Judy Chicago set a place for her at the Dinner Party of feminist idolatry; The Hours mixed Woolf and her turbulent life with those of women who found solace in her work to find a lineage of queerness and mental illness in women; and that’s nothing to say of adaptations of Woolf’s own work, from the sublime (Sally Potter’s Orlando) to the questionable (Mrs. Dalloway, starring Vanessa Redgrave and far too much voiceover). Every literature student has read her work and evoked her words for their own means, myself included.
It seemed almost curious that nobody had tried to make a straightforward biopic of her life, given its much-discussed scandals, most notably her relationship with writer Vita Sackville-West. How would one resist the story of a brief but passionate romance between two celebrated writers of their time, one a troubled genius of the literary scene, the other a rebellious socialite with a penchant for pretty women and high fashion?
Vita and Virginia, written by Dame Eileen Atkins, is the dramatization of that romance, starring Gemma Arterton as Vita and Elizabeth Debicki as Woolf. One is a best-seller whose marriage is proudly sold to the world as unconventional, a helpful distraction from her scandalous past, while the other is a literary elite and member of the close-knit Bloomsbury group with a reputation for being ‘difficult’. Vita, a die-hard Woolf fan, quickly makes her acquaintance and her forwardness with the curious Woolf soon becomes inspiring and troubling for both.
There are not enough wonderful things to be said about Elizabeth Debicki. She’s been making a mark on screen for a few years now, from The Great Gatsby to The Night Manager to my ever beloved The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. It should be of no surprise to those in the know that she is excellent as Virginia Woolf. She makes the verbosity of Woolf seem utterly organic, moving around parties and locations with a tentative grace that makes Woolf somehow both enthralling and off-putting. Debicki channels that haughtiness as well as the obvious emotional constraints that keep Woolf from the brink of breakdown. Between this and Widows, Debicki deserves Nicole Kidman levels of industry clout.
Gemma Arterton has the more extroverted role as Sackville-West, the vivacious society girl and popular author — bigger sales than Woolf — who balances life as an acceptably unconventional ambassador’s wife with her scurrilous proclivities to bed almost everyone she meets. We briefly meet Vita’s disapproving mother (a delightfully scornful Isabella Rossellini) but see little of her children, and she genuinely loves her husband, a man whose own more discreet private life is equally as shocking to society as hers. Arterton has fun with Vita’s giddy zeal for life, although there are moments where she turns a tad too peppy. The point is in the contrast - Sackville-West and Woolf are a classic case of opposites attract, one built on a mutual love of the written word they share in markedly different ways. Their approaches are opposing but the chemistry is undeniable.
The film’s weaknesses lie in its adherence to biopic clichés. Sackville-West and Woolf’s writing projects are name-dropped with the subtlety of a power-drill and some moments are acting as info-dumps in ways that feel wholly unnatural to the characters. The women’s own words are used heavily to the point of being a crutch to the rest of the script, although Debicki and Arterton reading Sackville-West and Woolf’s letters to one another becomes beautifully intimate with their interrogative glances into the camera lens. Woolf’s mental illness is handled with clumsy hands too, as her mind conjures growing vines and flying crows in ways that romanticise such delusions.
Truthfully, I think a lot of straight dudes won’t get Vita and Virginia. I’ve already heard a few of them grumbling around Toronto about how the film is ‘mannered’ and ‘cold’. These criticisms came up a lot a few years ago when Todd Haynes’s Carol was released, and I never understood those claims back them. Frankly, I think such dismissals miss the point of historical queer fiction. In Vita and Virginia, the context is different from something like Carol: For one thing, Vita Sackville-West’s sexual dalliances with women were hardly secret, and Woolf’s Bloomsbury group proudly supported a more liberated approach to sexuality. Yet some of the old ways are still necessary, like the coded language for public discourse and the furtive glances that must speak louder than words. The women themselves cannot be divided from this context. The specificity of Woolf and Sackville-West’s experiences and how they interacted with one another are explicitly part of queer cultural history. They couldn’t be as passionate as desired not just because they were women but because they were Virginia and Vita. What may seem distant and mannered to some will feel very different to others.
Header Image Source: Courtesy of TIFF