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Film Review: “Vita & Virginia” Engages, If More Vita Than Virginia

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 5th, 2019

Film poster: “Vita & Virginia”

Vita & Virginia (Chanya Button, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Though the late Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) has been portrayed on screen before in a cinematically stronger film than the new Vita & Virginia (i.e., the 2002 The Hours), she has heretofore not enjoyed as lush a sapphic awakening as she experiences here. This time incarnated by the Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki (Widows), Ms. Woolf is a towering presence – quite literally, as Debicki is almost 6’3” (far taller than the real Woolf, in fact) – though not the most confident of souls outside her writing circles (where she dominates). High-strung and prone to bouts of depression, Woolf is comfortably married when we meet her, at the top of her professional game, and deeply unsettled by sex. When she meets the openly bisexual Vita Sackville-West – an author, herself, though of the best-selling variety – who makes a brazen play for her, the intellectual Woolf is almost undone by passion. Still, there’s no problem in life that a good orgasm won’t fix. Or at least that’s the thesis of this particular film. 

Gemma Arterton (Gemma Bovery) plays Sackville-West as a wealthy sophisticate of rapacious appetite, titillated not only by the chase but also by the increasingly feeble resistance of her prey. All sensual smoothness to Debicki’s angularity, she pouts when she can’t get her way, though these childish moods in no way hide the strong will and sharp mind beneath. She’s a force of nature, and even if an inferior writer (to Woolf, anyway), she cuts enough of a swath through life to play muse to her lover, inspiring Woolf’s next great work, Orlando. Sometimes one can be immortalized for one’s personality, if not skills.

Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton in VITA & VIRGINIA ©IFC Films

Salacious at times, meditative at others, Vita & Virginia holds one’s interest, throughout, even if it never rises to the level of Woolf’s writing. Both actresses engage, however, especially Arterton, who commands attention from the viewer, much as she does from the much taller Debicki. My favorite part of the story, how they managed their marriages of more than just convenience with alternately understanding and frustrated men, was only dealt with peripherally (granted, it’s the women’s tale), though enough to pique my interest. Still, simplistic in its rendering of imagination and desire though the movie may often be, it bears watching, for the performances if not the story. It’s more Vita than Virginia, in other words, a minor diversion rather than great art.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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