Historical queer romances are having a moment. From 2018’s Colette to HBO’s Gentleman Jack, women who loved women in the 19th century are being recognized as the LGBTQ pioneers that they were. Chanya Button’s Vita and Virginia is another entry in this canon’s ongoing creation, but aside from its focus on the affair of its central protagonists, the film doesn’t quite capture the same intensely forward-moving energy as its spiritual predecessors.
Vita and Virginia centers on the authors Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and the affair they start after they meet briefly at a party. Their tryst is briefly all-consuming and eventually leads to Woolf’s publication of her classic novel Orlando.
It would be reductive to label Vita & Virginia a “feminist film,” but the story weaves distinctly feminist themes throughout. In the opening scene, Vita declares in a BBC radio interview that “independence has no sex,” and she holds to that sentiment tightly as she carries on her various extra-marital affairs. The two women are immediately drawn to each other and become consumed with their ongoing correspondence and romance.
Arterton’s Vita is energetic, determined and full of life, and she plays to Vita’s hunger for excitement and adventure. Her writing career thrills her, but she is constantly in search of the next, more thrilling thing. Debicki’s Virginia is haunted; in her first appearance, she is dancing dreamily at a costume party, ethereal in her beauty and breezily unconcerned with Vita’s eyes on her. But Virginia’s unattainable air is quickly upended. Vita sets her sights on her creative better and pursues her relentlessly, and the assumed power dynamic is reversed almost immediately. Virginia initially demures, unsure of her own attractions, but eventually relents declaring their night of passion to be “perfectly, indescribably physical.” When Vita moves on to another lover, Virginia funnels the rejection into her writing, creating the protagonist of her novel Orlando in Vita’s image.
While the film is gorgeously acted, and Arterton and Debicki rise to the occasion to bring heat and passion to the screen, they are failed by the too-long, lackluster script. The movie moves at a glacial pace but rapidly tosses out exposition that is neither relevant nor engaging. A letter-writing framing device has the women speak their letters to the camera surrounded by hazy light. It recurs throughout the film and never quite justifies its existence. The supporting cast never seems to exist as anything more than filler for the story; aside from the general proximity of their husbands, all the other characters could easily be eliminated without any major interruption to the story.
On the other hand, one of the more interesting things about the women’s relationship is how quickly it becomes central to both of their lives and how each of their husbands reacts. Despite the apparent progressive nature of their marriages, both husbands are wary of how consumed his wife has become with the other. While all four partners have extra-marital affairs and trysts with their spouse’s consent, it is the women’s infatuations that are presented as “problems.” Vita’s earlier affair with author Violet Keppel is introduced through her mother’s disapproval, and Virginia’s infatuation with Vita concerns her husband so deeply that he begs her not to go on an extended trip with her after Orlando is published. Both men very clearly love their wives but feel distant from them. Their own affairs are inconsequential dalliances. The women’s are a minor betrayal of the fidelity they have promised their husbands.
But because their husbands take great pains not to stifle their wives’ desires or independence, the story’s main conflict is the wide gulf in the personalities of the two lovers. The women spend so much time apart over the course of the film that much of its runtime is spent waiting for them to reunite. Vita is gregarious and happy to pursue the women she wants. But Virginia is more reserved, prone to speaking in esoteric riddles few can decipher. This intrigues Vita but confounds everyone else in her orbit, and requires far too much of the audience.
Virginia’s frailty and mental health are also strangely handled. While the author was believed to suffer from what is now called bipolar disorder, several times Virginia is seen to suffer from visual hallucinations that belie her mental state. When she is exploring passions with her husband or with Vita, she sees slowly growing vines and plants that overtake her surroundings. When her frustration with Vita renders her temporarily mute, she sees a murder of crows intent on her destruction. It is clear to a modern audience that Virginia is unwell and suicidal, but her peers treat her as though she’s dealing with a particularly nasty case of the vapors. They worry for her and fuss over her, but Vita, the woman who claims to love her, seems only to see that she is no longer available for their various trysts.
Despite this, Debecki shines as the doomed writer, imbuing her with all the tragic undertones of a woman at war with her own mind. Her Virginia Woolf feels too much, and somehow not enough, so she puts it all down in her novels as a way to process. Her height and frame help to evoke her tenuous tether to the living world; she always looks like she might blow away with a particularly stern glance.
Isobel Waller-Bridge’s score is modern and intrusive but still manages to be of a piece with the film’s progressive streak. The musical cues are noticeable, but they do much of the heavy lifting to highlight the apparent contrast between the story’s 1920s setting and the central queer love story. The costuming, too, leaves hints about the women’s motives. Dropped waists are apparent, as was the style, but so is Vita’s preference for pants and Virginia’s general rejection of them. Despite Vita’s clear dismissal of essentialist binaries, her dress belies that she too understands the social power that comes with access to the masculine.
Both Colette and Gentleman Jack use varying degrees of cross-dressing to denote their protagonists’ relative power during their time, but unlike them, Vita and Virginia never makes a clear enough statement of intent to feel meaningful. In the previous properties, clothing is a demarcation of their changing relationship to their sexual identities. Here, they’re simply clothes. It’s another way in which the queer romance feels both central and inconsequential, to the extreme detriment of the film.
The sad fact is that Vita and Virginia simply isn’t very good, and never quite lives up to the extraordinary promise of these two literary titans. It flattens Vita into a fussy, privileged, womanizer who entertains herself by having affairs and almost entirely glosses over the magnitude of Virginia’s mental illness and suicidal ideation. Arterton, Debicki, and their real-life counterparts are underserved by a script that doesn’t quite understand its own relationship to queer romance and has little to say about it except that it existed.
Vita and Virginia hits theaters today, August 23