Vita & Virginia is Beautiful, But Disappointingly Surface Level: TIFF Review

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Virginia Woolf has always been a fascinating subject for research, but many films that seek to cover the sort of person she was never really find themselves living up to what a complicated figure she was. In order to get the most obvious out of the way, she truly is one of the greatest authors ever to have lived, but it’s difficult to pinpoint the sort of person that she was. When talking more about Chanya Button’s portrait of the British author and her own relationship with Vita Sackville-West, there’s already potential for a film that can be made with a greater reach yet I only found myself conflicted about what to make of the final product. There are many admirable qualities present in what Chanya Button presents for the screen in Vita & Virginia, but in the end I’m not entirely sure about how well do all of them fully connect with one another. Not that it makes Vita & Virginia anything of a failure – but it just feels a crucial part of this story remained missing.

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Being a film about the relationship between Virginia Woolf (portrayed by Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton), this film tells the story of how this love affair had also inspired the source for Virginia Woolf’s own androgynous subject for her own book Orlando – while also giving a glimpse into the mind of the British writer. On the surface, this already sounds like a fascinating template to explore yet the most that I’ve ever really come close to with getting a sense of what Virginia Woolf had on her mind as she was working on a character like Orlando only ever feels like it remains only on the surface. Which in a sense feels like the exact opposite of the sort of character that she would have wanted Orlando to be recognized as. It only ever comes off as being empty, which isn’t what I would have wanted out of a movie that focuses on the creative process of one of the most influential writers of all time.

Gemma Arterton’s performance as Vita Sackville-West is a stunner, but it’s only fair also to note how wonderful Elizabeth Debicki’s performance as Virginia Woolf is. Of course, being a film focused on the relationship between Sackville-West and Woolf, you can also find yourself immersed into Virginia Woolf’s creative process too and how this relationship would have already affected her at the time. But there was also a point to which I felt like I would have wanted to know more about Woolf herself, because as wonderful as the performances were, I only ever saw Vita Sackville-West’s perspective shining throughout yet not enough of Woolf. Debicki’s performance, as wonderful as she’s always been, only ever feels underused at most. As a result, I only ever found myself at a distance from the central relationship that inspired Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, because it only ever felt like a film that had been made about Orlando.

Despite all of this, I admire that Chanya Button brought this story to the big screen because of how vital it is to understanding the sort of figure that Virginia Woolf was. There was always going to be a challenge in trying to pinpoint every detail that would have made Virginia Woolf’s process of trying to write a character much like Orlando would have been and in that sense, you also find yourself watching Vita Sackville-West striking oneself as the sort of person that inspired Orlando – you already feel where the inspiration comes from. And in trying to bring everything that flows inside of her mind to the big screen, Chanya Button also creates something incredibly beautiful on the spot – whether it be from the cinematography, the set pieces, or even the sometimes distractingly modern musical score, there’s always something that Vita & Virginia presents to your eyes that would make every moment of your time worth the while. It was a story that needed to be told, and the best thing that Button can present is a new understanding of Virginia Woolf’s complicated creative process, because there’s no one way to point out how a mind like hers could have brought out such incredible prose that would remain so resonant over time.

There’s no denying that a film like this would be vital for purists of Virginia Woolf, but I feel like there’s something else under the surface that we could easily have learned a lot more from. So much of this also shows itself to be nothing but truly mystifying, but I also can’t help but admit that a lot of it also had left me feeling quite empty too. Yet there’s always something to enjoy whenever Elizabeth Debicki takes the screen in her own interpretation of Virginia Woolf, though I will also admit that I wish I could have seen so much more from it at the same time. I will admit though, Gemma Arterton’s performance as Vita Sackville-West is wonderful and deserves recognition on every turn. I just wish that I could say the same about the film that surrounded both Vita and Virginia.


Watch a clip right here.

Images via TIFF.


Directed by Chanya Button
Screenplay by Chanya Button, Eileen Atkins, from the play by Atkins
Produced by Evangelo Kioussis, Katie Holly
Starring Elizabeth Debicki, Gemma Arterton, Isabella Rossellini
Release Date: September 7, 2018 (TIFF)
Running Time: 110 minutes

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