BFI FLARE REVIEW: ‘Vita &Virginia’ (2019) is Delicate and Poetic

Great writers always put passion and love in to their work. Virginia Woolf was no different, and with Vita & Virginia we see into the relationship which inspired one of Woolf’s greatest works: Orlando. Chanya Button takes a delicate and poetic look at a time in this pair’s life that shines a light on their relationship. Following the two titular woman, Vita and Virginia, we see the growth from life at home with husbands in marriages that are not quite ideal, and how the introduction to each other became an incredibly important moment for self-discovery.

Elizabeth Debicki as Virginia gives off an otherworldly presence in this film, as though jumping between this reality and her own. She speaks as though writing an incredible sonnet but at times becomes lost for words as though the moment overwhelms her. Debicki is able to portray this with a truthfulness that is hard to match. Gemma Arterton as Vita Sackville-West, on the other hand, feels grounded but without purpose. Her character’s motivations become muddled at times, owing to Vita’s struggle to show her love. Having these two very contrasting characters, Virginia quite meek and Vita more assertive, gives us the chance to see how total opposites can sometimes be exactly what is needed in a blossoming relationship. The two at times bring out the best in each other, but at other moments are unable to understand each other’s wishes and desires.

Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arteton in Vita & Virginia (2018)

Vita is portrayed as the more confident within her sexuality but has to manage her desires for fear of destroying her credibility and family. Virginia is more closed to her desires but has trouble grasping on to what is real and what is fiction. Her world at times becomes populated with fraudulent images of flowers growing or birds swarming as she struggles to understand whether the passion she feels for Vita is purely fictitious. This is perhaps the most clichéd of the elements used throughout the film; playing into a classic trope of mental instability and artists being unable to distinguish fact from fiction.

As with many forbidden romance stories, a lot more is said by looks than words. With two great writers comes great work and through their work comes both love and pain. Whereas many would rely on close-ups of the intimate moments shared between the two, instead they are reserved for the creation of their work. Intricate details of typewriters, quills and printing presses, interspersed with shallow focus of each of the writers’ tools, their eyes and mouths. The real passion between these two women is shown in their shared letters detailing the intimacy they desire from each other. Here is where we can see their true intentions, while in person they at times struggle to show their true desire – especially Virginia, who is conflicted about pursuing a relationship. The opening scene with Vita speaking on BBC Radio and Virginia writing in her office has the camera cutting between close ups of Vita’s lips speaking and the quill of Virginia scratching away at her latest manuscript. As Vita continues to talk, you can feel Virginia change as the words resonate with her and her scribbling begins to become more violent, crossing out errors. The intimacy in their relationship is about the words they share with each other and that’s how their desire begins.

Virginia (Debicki) in Vita & Virginia (2018)

A beautiful detail brought forward by director Chanya Button is when these letters of passion are read aloud by their writers as though standing right in front of their recipient. Here, we become the object of their affection, putting us deep within their relationship, unable to escape their gaze. Even when the focus becomes unstable and different aspects of Virginia’s face are drawn to our attention, we can still feel the immediacy of their desire. It’s exciting, then, that when we see them share face to face personal moments we are left to watch at a greater distance, as though the passion from those letters does not quite match up to the passion felt in person. Shot through doorways and in the reflection of mirrors, our view of their connection is distorted as though their true relationship was the one shared in those letters. This is where Vita & Virginia excels; we are shown both the moments together and apart and left to judge for ourselves, where was their real passion: in their work and letters, or in their relationship?

Dir.: Chanya Button

Prod.: Gemma Arterton, Simon Baxter, and Dave Bishop

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Elizabeth Debicki