Vita & Virginia movie review: the 1920s London literary scene, drained of all passion

part of my Directed by Women series
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Vita & Virginia red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

The legendary literary lesbian romance, starring the incendiary duo of Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki, is criminally blah, lacking all sexual and intellectual passion. How does this happen?
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women; love Arterton and Debicki
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

A movie about the legendary literary lesbian* romance that directly inspired the creation of one of the great works of fiction, starring the absolutely incendiary duo of Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki? It’s criminal that Vita & Virginia is this dull. This blah. This, somehow, stodgy. There’s no passion to be found here: not sexual, not intellectual. (It’s arguable which is worse, but given how little screen time throughout history intellectual women have gotten, I’ll go with the latter.) How does this happen?

It’s 1920s London. (OMG the clothes.) Aristocrat and popular novelist Vita Sackville-West (Arterton: Their Finest, The Girl with All the Gifts) is a “promiscuous exhibitionist,” her disdainful mother (Isabella Rossellini: Joy, Enemy) snipes. Vita’s husband, diplomat Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones [A Little Chaos, Charlotte Gray], sporting impressive historical facial hair), decries the “sapphic pageant” that is her life, as she engages in an endless array of dalliances with women. (They have a quietly open marriage, and he has dalliances with men. But he is a typical male hypocrite.) If only the depiction of Vita’s pursuit of fellow writer Virginia Woolf (Debicki: Widows, Peter Rabbit) — a woman of a far more bohemian bent and beneath her, socially — exuded the deliciously sordid energy that her detractors speak of!

Vita & Virginia Gemma Arterton
Oh, to lounge like the literary ladies of 1920s London…

Based on a 1992 play by actor Eileen Atkins, and adapted with Atkins by British director Chanya Button for her second feature, Vita & Virginia features a lot of talk about Vita’s ardor and fieriness, a contrast to the subdued rationalism of Virginia, but we never feel it. Not even when the ups-and-downs of these two fire-and-ice women upend Virginia’s mental state, which is precarious to begin with. Wolff may have been bipolar; her breakdown here, when it comes, involves her being unable to find the ordinary words to express what she is trying to say, which may have been accurate as far as how her mental distress manifested, but my first thought was that she was having a stroke, which is a completely different sort of physical affliction from bipolar disorders. Whatever diagnosis might be made today, she was psychologically precarious, as we see here, though only via a kind of stiff-upper-lip–colored glasses.

But it seems that Vita’s spirit — which, I stress with utmost disappointment, is more spoken of than shown — inspires Virginia to write Orlando, her famous fantasy about a 15th-century gentleman who changes gender and becomes a woman. It would be legit amazing and inspiring and powerful if Vita & Virginia could have managed to capture the sense of a person who embodies masculine and feminine energy in equal measure, a person who is human first, before any notion of male/female/other/none comes into it.

This movie does not manage that.

Vita & Virginia Elizabeth Debicki
Virginia Woolf, channeling Orlando, though she didn’t know it yet…

Instead, it feels as if Arterton and Debicki have been instructed to tamp down any embarrassingly unBritish emotion, any distressing fleshly vitality, any suggestion that these women authentically transcended the cultural boxes into which they’d been shoved, rather than merely feebly struggling against them. Perhaps this is intentional and overt, meant to, I dunno, keep the film somehow “accessible” and mainstream. (How dare we suggest that women — and men! — are not their gender!) Perhaps this is what happens when even female filmmakers have internalized the notion that strong passion from women is unseemly unless it involves husbands or children. (Virginia is childless, but is married, to Leonard Wolff [Peter Ferdinando: King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Ghost in the Shell], who seems more business partner than life partner.) A sidebar character, Virginia’s sister, painter Vanessa Bell (Emerald Fennell: Pan, The Danish Girl), is way more engagingly weird and vibrant. I’d love to see a movie about her.

In any event, it doesn’t feel right that this story should be told in a way that is suitable for tweens, as its British rating of 12A suggests. I suspect a rather demure scene of fully clothed female sexual pleasure will earn the film an R rating for its US release in August. Because women having orgasms without men, or at all? Horrors!

I wish this movie didn’t accidentally embrace such regressive attitudes about women, sex, independence, and who deserves personhood. But it kinda does.

*‘legendary literary lesbian’: say that three times fast

Vita & Virginia is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for August 30th. I could not endorse it, but for a counterpoint to my review, read the comments from other AWFJ members on why the film deserves this honor.

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