Vita & Virginia is a gorgeously-appointed historical drama based on the facts of the romantic affair between literary giant Virginia Woolf and fellow writer Vita Sackville-West. The drama is directed by Chanya Button, who co-wrote the screenplay with renowned British actor Eileen Atkins, who used the letters between Woolf and Sackville-West as the basis for the stage play on which the film is based. Filled with stunning 1920s costumes and wonderfully lush sets, the film’s visual beauty seems aimed to seduce us, as much as the lively, aristocratic Vita (Gemma Arterton) sets out seduce the aloof, intellectual Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki).
Vita already has a reputation for affairs with women, barely avoiding a career-ending scandal for her closeted gay diplomat husband. A fan of Virginia’s books, Vita arranges to meet her at party, and then engages in a relentless campaign of seduction. The affair sparked Woolf to write her great gender-shifting novel Orlando.
Yes, there is more than a bit of soap opera in that and, on one level, this is pretty, pleasant costume drama romance. But the figures at the center of it happen to be female literary giants, and there is a feminist theme that fits with the explosion of artistic and social change that took place in the 1920s. VITA & VIRGINIA is the latest in a line recently of romantic dramas about lesbian affairs of historical figures. The film is studded with feminist commentary and is gorgeous to watch, and Debicki and Arterton do their best to breath vibrant life into these historical figures, while Isabelle Rosselini adds a little acid as Vita’s disapproving, wealthy mother. Still, the film has a coolness to it and fails to really catch fire. Vita & Virginia is a pleasant enough historical drama about a pivotal time in Virginia Woolf’s career and life, but perhaps not the incendiary revelation it might have been.