Vita and Virginia – Film Review
by Frank L.
Director: Chanya Button
Writers: Eileen Atkins, Virginia Woolf (letters)
Stars: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isabella Rossellini
Based on Eileen Atkins 1992 play of the same title, Chanya Button seeks to tell the story, during the inter war years, of the relationship between Vita Sackville West (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki), her senior by ten years. Vita came from a background of inherited wealth which even in the nineteen twenties remained massive. Virginia came from a more modest but still well-heeled, middle class background. Vita was married to Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Virginia to Leonard Woolf (Peter Ferdinando). While Vita retained her maiden name for the purpose of her literary career Virginia used that of her husband. However, they both were free of many of the social conventions of their time.
Leonard and Virginia ran the Hogarth Press. Vita and Virginia’s relationship takes place amongst the brouhaha of London literary and bohemian society in the roaring twenties. It is hedonistic as it tries to make some sort of sense of the world after the horrors of the first world war.
The film seeks to show the liberated sexual lives of the protagonists where the gender of a sexual partner was not confined within the strait jacket of a man with a woman. In relation to Vita and Virginia, this is illustrated by extracts from their copious correspondence and judicious horizontal bedroom scenes. Their behaviour was not unique as Harold demonstrates and as Virginia’s brother-in-law the painter Duncan Grant proclaims with considerable campness.
The great Sackville mansion of Knowle is seen along with the rural charm of the house at Charleston. The Bloomsbury London architecture is represented by Dublin’s North Great George’s Street. It is all visually overwhelming. So much so that the relationship between Vita and Victoria becomes upstaged, notwithstanding the acting of Arterton and Debicki.
The relationship between the two women was the source of Woolf’s novel Orlando. While this novel plays a part in the proceedings it is almost as an aside. It is like an additional trapping rather than the artistic triumph of their relationship. If its complex story line had more prominence and the material glories of the surroundings less, the depth of the relationship between the two women might have been easier to appreciate. Button has permitted the trappings of Vita and Virginia’s lives to crowd out the intensity of their friendship. That said, it is a visual delight.