Stephen Daldry’s film ‘The Hours” begins and ends with the same image: Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf submerging herself underwater. “Everything is gone from me […]” she whines.
This portrayal of Woolf (that won Kidman her Oscar), focuses primarily on the artist’s suffering. Woolf feels imprisoned within her own body as she fights a mental illness that she feels she’ll never recover from. It’s this struggle with mental illness that culminated in the author’s depression and suicide attempts that is often the focus when discussing the writer’s life. The trend began with “The Hours,” as it was the first portrayal of Woolf brought to the screen, focused strongly on the severity of her mental illness, and failed to explore anything else—especially her sexuality.
Although “The Hours” set a dangerous precedent for Woolf’s on-screen portrayal, that narrative begins to shift in the film “Vita & Virginia.” With the addition of Chanya Button’s latest movie, we begin to see a more detailed picture of the writer. Both “The Hours” and “Vita & Virginia” are complementary, but Button concretely focused on Woolf’s sexuality while also delicately discussing her mental illness.
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“Vita & Virginia” pens a revisionist take on Virginia Woolf (portrayed by Elizabeth Debicki, who, and I can’t stress this enough, is 6’3”) that has never been seen before. It’s a film which explores her same-sex romance with Vita Sackville-West (played by Gemma Arterton) and how she inspired Woolf to write her queer masterpiece, “Orlando.” It’s a novel that Vita’s son, Nigel Nicolson, would later call “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”
Adapted to the screen in 1992 by Sally Potter, “Orlando” tells the story of a nobleman (played by Tilda Swinton) who can live for centuries. One day, Orlando wakes up as a woman, losing his status in nobility, and with it all power over his estate. “Orlando” would be a celebration of a relationship that, while not illegal, was shunned by society, and “Vita & Virginia” shows how that relationship came to be.
Writer-director Button, along with writer Eileen Atkins, is quick to establish the link between their film and “Orlando.” The pair craft a script that questions what is masculine, what is feminine, and how these binaries create damaging absolutes. “Independence has no sex,” Arterton’s Vita says.
In “Vita & Virginia”’s opening scene, Vita expresses her displeasure with a woman’s role in marriage, picking apart of societal norms and setting the feminist tone for the rest of the film. Vita, despite being high society, feels powerless in the pursuit of her own agency—especially around gender and sexuality—in a culture riddled with conventions. Virginia uses this as inspiration for “Orlando.”
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While Vita is a strong focus in the film as Virginia’s muse, Virginia’s characterization does not leave her to just her words. Her character is explored in-depth as well. Supporting characters (one of whom is Isabella Rossellini in fabulous hats) linger on rumors of Virginia’s “madness.” This brilliant mind is brought down to her mental illness by others, in a cliché way of saying that genius is only ever birthed out of depression. But in stark contrast with “The Hours,” Button and Atkins show an artist in states of blissful tranquility and those of genuine happiness. Her mental illness is not ignored but celebrated through CGI hallucinations that are beautiful and constructive, as opposed to destructive and ugly. The audience is given a more three-dimensional portrait of Virginia Woolf than ever before—a woman who believes in her own strength.
Arterton has a natural energy that plays up Vita’s vibrant eccentricity with ease. Debicki perfectly complements her in Virginia’s meekness and vulnerability while also bringing out a humorous side to the writer (in a matter of fact way).
Opposites do attract with Vita as the most dominant one of the pair; she makes the first move, while Virginia recoils with anxiety. This dynamic is representative of a remark made by Kidman’s Virginia in “The Hours.” In reference to a dead bird, she concludes it’s female because “the females are larger and less colorful,” perhaps seeing herself as a larger than life figure who isn’t “colorful” enough to live fully as such. And if the males are smaller and more colorful, then it could be equated with Vita’s remark that she enjoys the qualities in herself that may be said to be masculine. In this way, the crafting of these characters is the film’s biggest triumph.
Grappling with being trapped by a destiny that was penned for them, their love story lived primarily on paper, so having the film’s leading pair read the real letters between Vita and Virginia while looking directly into the camera adds to this intense intimacy. Their voices echo as they express their views on love and how they desperately desire it in life and from each other.
“Vita & Virginia” employs some interesting stylistic choices. While a story set in the 1920s would traditionally use a jazz score most attributed to the flapper age, this film is draped in techno music. It makes any Gatsby-esque party feel like a modern dance club. It’s jarring at first but works surprisingly well when used in subtle ways, such as when looks of yearning pass between the titular lovers or when the slightest touch ignites their fiery passion.
“Vita & Virginia” is a story that needed to be told as both an exploration of Woolf’s sexuality and as an illustration how two vastly different women came together to create something as beautiful, poetic, and revolutionary as “Orlando.” Of course, in a true to form depiction of the time in which it’s set, and as an accurate retelling of the story of these real women, the ending is not a happy one in the traditional sense, but a signifier of a new beginning.