"Vita & Virginia" Details Virginia Woolf's Scandalous Affair With Another Woman

Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton star in a lush if imperfect new film about the romance between the legendary novelist and socialite Vita Sackville-West.

Does it sound dismissive to say I found Vita & Virginia entertaining but flawed? None of the shortcomings of this new movie about the lesbian love affair between modernist novelist Virginia Woolf and fellow British writer Vita Sackville-West are insurmountable. It’s just unfortunate that the biggest one is at the very start of it, and it’s hard to shake off.

Perhaps my forewarning will help you forgive the fact that when Vita is first introduced to the legendarily moody and IRL unglamorous Woolf, writer-director Chanya Button chooses to depict Virginia as a sensuous beauty with curly blonde locks in the throes of a languorous dance. The incongruousness of this portrayal is jarring, and I must say it took me half the film to recover from it. This complaint aside, once it gets going, it has plenty to offer for period drama enthusiasts, fans of British literature, and lesbians alike.

IFC Films

Elizabeth Debicki as “Virginia Woolf” in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia.

Elizabeth Debicki as Virginia Woolf in Vita & Virginia.

The stunning Elizabeth Debicki (Widows) stars as the tall, lanky, and at times almost catatonically melancholy Virginia. Gemma Arterton (bearing an astounding resemblance to Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary) plays the flighty Vita, who aggressively pursues Virginia: “Her friendship is never untinged with desire,” Virginia observes before eventually succumbing to Vita’s charms. Both women are married.

Virginia and her husband, Leonard (Peter Ferdinando), run their publishing house together (the famous Hogarth Press) as Leonard loyally cares for Virginia and prioritizes, above all, her writing. He also looks the other way when it comes to her increasing love for Vita, proclaiming stoically, “I don’t believe in jealousy.” Meanwhile, Vita and her diplomat husband, Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones), carry on with their unconventional marriage—he with his male lover, she with her women. But Harold’s casual encouragement of Vita’s pursuit of Virginia eventually sours. Isabella Rossellini gives a terrific cameo performance as Vita’s harshly judgmental mother, Lady Sackville. Harping on her daughter about her shocking exploits, which include Vita’s previous dalliance with writer and socialite Violet Trefusis, Lady Sackville gripes (perhaps not inaccurately) that Vita is “a promiscuous exhibitionist.”

IFC Films

Isabella Rossellini as “Lady Sackville” and Elizabeth Debicki as “Virginia Woolf” in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia.

Isabella Rossellini as Lady Sackville and Elizabeth Debicki as Virginia Woolf in Vita & Virginia.

As Virginia eventually relents to Vita’s flirtations, and the women gradually embark on their affair, the film provides a backdrop of real-life Bloomsbury characters including numerous scenes with Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell (played by Emerald Fennell, whom we’re about to enjoy as Camilla Parker Bowles in Season 3 of The Crown), who maintains a relationship with both her husband Clive (Gethin Anthony) and their friend, the gay painter Duncan Grant (Adam Gillen). They serve as a sexually progressive chorus, egging Vita and Virginia on, their bohemian artist life at Charleston contrasting with the posh formality of Vita’s family estate, Knole House (which also has a certain resemblance to Downton Abbey).

It seems clear early on that Vita’s wildness will eventually break Virginia’s heart. Or will Virginia’s remoteness and impending loss of sanity (she hallucinates that creeping ivy is overtaking her home) be Vita’s downfall? Even knowing it likely won’t end well, one can’t deny the pleasure of witnessing their impassioned ups and downs. Not to get carried away with these comparisons, but it feels like some kind of compensational justice for how gay Downton Abbey actually should have been.

The period covered here, most of the 1920s, includes the writing and publication of Woolf’s legendary Orlando, a novel inspired by Vita that features a main character who changes genders over the course of a centuries-long narrative. Virginia also drives Vita’s writing, and the two share a unique commiseration, one psychologically complicated artist to another: “Do you ever feel that you record things rather than feel them?” Vita asks Virginia at one point.

IFC Films

Gemma Arterton as “Vita Sackville-West” and Elizabeth Debicki as “Virginia Woolf” in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia.

Gemma Arterton as Vita Sackville-West and Elizabeth Debicki as Virginia Woolf in Vita & Virginia.

Based on the Eileen Atkins play of the same name, which draws from the real-life letters exchanged between these two bisexual literary heroes, Vita & Virginia deploys a volley of beautifully done direct-to-camera monologues that highlight their exquisite writings. It also features lush production design and gorgeous lead actresses whose chemistry is not quite as perfect as it could be, but still pretty convincing.

Just one last criticism to temper this enthusiasm: There is something ultimately frustrating about the film’s prolonged tone of aloofness. Even when these two women are finally together we still feel vaguely unsatisfied. “You have as much of me as I have to give,” says Virginia, explaining her commitment to remain with her husband, and also summing up part of the aching appeal of all these 100-year-old polyamorous shenanigans.

And while we’re on the topic of lesbian Bloomsbury films, do not miss seeing the super-hot 1990 BBC production of Portrait of a Marriage, which chronicles Vita Sackville-West’s aforementioned fling with Violet Trefusis that involved Vita dressing as a man (to which Vita & Virginia alludes in a passing reference). It’s not available on digital platforms, but Janet McTeer’s fabulously butch portrayal of Vita is alone worth the price of the DVD player you’ll need to buy to watch it.

Vita & Virginia is playing at New York City’s Quad Cinema and opens August 30 at the Nuart in Los Angeles before expanding to select theaters nationwide.