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film review

Vita & Virginia tells the story of the love affair between author Vita Sackville-West and literary icon Virginia Woolf.Courtesy of Mongrel Media

  • Vita & Virginia
  • Directed by Chanya Button
  • Written by Chanya Button, based on the letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Starring Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton
  • Classification N/A
  • 110 minutes


2 out of 4 stars

Virginia Woolf was an author of strong opinions. Movies were not exempt from her fine-toothed comb. In a 1926 essay titled The Cinema, she expresses some mixed feelings about the (then) young art form – she was impressed by its potential but ambivalent about how that potential was being realized. Woolf writes about film’s unique ability to evoke powerful mental experiences that remove us “from the pettiness of actual existence.” But she balks at an early tendency to adapt books into film, suggesting that the two mediums work their magic on us differently, the former by inciting a kind of psychological expansion and the latter through something much more pointed and distilled. In her mind, transforming literature into film was an act of diminishing distortion.

It follows that I’m a little tempted to speculate what the author might have made of the stilted and sluggish Vita & Virginia, a new film adaptation of Eileen Atkins’s 1992 play about Woolf’s romance with Vita Sackville-West. I wonder if Woolf might accuse director Chanya Button of not quite understanding her medium.

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The film, which stars Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton as Woolf and Sackville-West respectively, relies substantially on the letters the two women wrote to each other over the course of many years. It means there’s a lot of concentrated writerly prose to listen to, the sort that was never intended to be read aloud. (Sackville-West was a novelist herself, though a populist in style and nowhere near Woolf’s artistic equal.) Maybe dramatizing their correspondence would have worked if it had been paired with convincing dialogue.

But little imagination went into what these women would have actually said to each other in their private life; instead, they mostly speak in earnest about Woolf’s writing, grazing her well-known obsessions with rhythm and time. It’s light research, worn heavily, and the romance that ensues feels just about as studied and slight. The exposition continues in the scenes between Sackville-West and her husband, the diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson, whose only purpose as a character is to argue with his wife about her various “Sapphic” indulgences.

Fans of Woolf, and those with some knowledge of the Bloomsbury Group – the circle of writers, artists and intellectuals of which she was a part – might also find the movie tonally odd. Button uses a kind of magical-realist aesthetic to evoke the turmoil of Woolf’s inner world – vines grow suddenly inside the house’s interior to show her distraction and a murder of crows encircle her body to show her dark moods. Coupled with a pulsing electronica score, it all feels treacly and self-conscious, qualities that seem to undermine Woolf’s seriousness as a writer.

There are also puzzling chronological liberties. The film covers the publication of Mrs. Dalloway (1926) and To the Lighthouse (1927), two of Woolf’s masterpieces, which she wrote in her early 40s, at the height of her artistic powers. And yet, by casting Debicki, Button suggests that Woolf was an emerging writer in her late 20s. Instead, Button makes Sackville-West the more experienced older woman, when, in reality, she was 10 years Woolf’s junior. Moreover, the whole pitch of the Bloomsbury crowd feels giddy and out of tune, creating a sense of frivolousness that pervades the whole film and adds to its lightness.

Vita & Virginia is available Nov. 26 on VOD

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