After premiering at TIFF last year, Chanya Button’s elusive Vita and Virginia all but disappeared from sight, much to the dismay of film lesbians everywhere. Still lacking a release date or even a trailer, Button’s effervescent biopic finally had its UK premiere at BFI Flare. Vita and Virginia brings to life its eponymous heroines, Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki), two unlikely friends who, enamoured by each other’s minds, embark on a tempestuous love affair against the backdrop of the bohemian Bloomsbury group in the roaring 20s.
Though she is the more successful writer, it is the vivacious socialite Vita that is in hot pursuit of Virginia, enthralled by her far more sombre attitude and prose. After meeting at a party the two personalities clash, but the apparent hostility on Virginia’s part only adds fire to the fuel in Vita’s belly. Already notorious for her thinly-veiled interest in women, Vita coaxes the reclusive Virginia into a deliciously slow-burn battle of both intellect and sexual tension. However, the power balance between the two literary minds is not all that it first seems; Vita soon finds herself interpreted and rewritten by Virginia in ways she fears to imagine, revealing a deep vulnerability that draws the two even closer.
Vita and Virginia is a conventional biopic in many ways, from its nostalgic depiction of Jazz-age London to its highbrow acting talent. However, it weaves authentic queerness into one of Hollywood’s most beloved genres through its fluid depiction of time, space, and reality. The period drama is heavily inflected by its epistolary roots; the letters exchanged between Vita and Virginia have new life breathed into them as the women’s relationship is speculated on more candidly than ever before. A particularly bold choice in Button’s depiction of the era is the score, composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge. The music has an almost-techno vibe and a pulsing bassline that feels both jarringly contrapuntal and entirely appropriate. This is just one of the many ways Vita and Virginia transcends time and space, situating its heroines both firmly within, and yet completely extrinsic to, their time.
The narrative is confidently driven by the lead performances, capturing two bold historical personalities that practically leap out of the screen. As Vita, Arterton is a magnetic presence, with an air of aristocratic flamboyance and grandeur that would be ridiculous if she didn’t possess it with complete conviction. Meanwhile, Debicki’s Virginia injects a far more downcast, contemplative presence; her piercing gaze perforates Vita’s shiny exterior and finds a complexity of emotion that allows her to reveal her own. It therefore comes as no surprise that Vita went on to inspire Woolf’s celebrated novel Orlando: A Biography, described by Sackville-West’s son as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”
Button and Eileen Atkins’ screenplay portrays the passionate affair with a wry wit and a rousing tenderness that feels deeply humanising. Vita and Virginia provides not only a beautifully intricate love story, but also a sorely-needed cinematic document of two extraordinary lives crossing paths, that would change the course of literary history in ways neither woman could have foreseen.
by Megan Wilson
Meg (she/her) is a Mancunian film studies graduate with an MA in gender, sexuality and culture, now working in secondary education in London. When not wrangling her cats or playing football, she dreams of being a professor and writing endless books on lesbian cinema just because she can. Her favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and she’ll always have a soft spot for Matilda. Find her on Twitter.