Virginia Woolf met Vita Sackville-West, her writer contemporary, in the 1920s. The authors forged a friendship and embarked on a tempestuous love affair that irrevocably changed both women’s lives, as explored in Chanya Button’s new biopic, Vita & Virginia.
The film charts the relationship between these two very different women—Woolf, brilliant but emotionally troubled and erratic; and Sackville-West, brash, aristocratic, hedonistic, and prone to courting scandal. Button also examines how the relationship, marked by all-consuming desire, intellectual gamesmanship, and destructive jealousy, inspired Woolf to write Orlando, one of her most famous novels.
Two married women
In the 1920s, Sackville-West was a moderately popular author from an aristocratic family, stuck in an unsatisfying and restrictive marriage to a British diplomat. A bisexual woman both closeted and refusing to be constrained, she got involved in frequent affairs with both men and women. Her willingness to risk scandal often placed her at odds with her conventional family. Then she met Virginia Woolf.
At the time, Woolf was also married, to her publisher. It was a sexless marriage for many reasons, but the couple was devoted to each other. At the time, Woolf was laboring in obscurity, having not yet established the reputation that would later mark her as one of England’s greatest writers.
Nuance and depth
Button goes to great pains to explore the women’s emotional lives, including the nature of their relationships with their husbands and family members. Such attention to emotional context ensures that V&V’s affair does not take place in a vacuum. Button’s script in this regard is a wondrous affair, richly laced with emotional depth and complexity.
Button’s direction also shines in its nuance and subtlety, particularly in the performances she coaxed out of her two leads. Elizabeth Debicki is the standout as Virginia Woolf. She perfectly captures Woolf’s intellectual brilliance as well as her emotional fragility, simultaneously brimming with quiet strength and subtle nuance. She is ethereal and mesmerizing.
Gemma Arterton has an equally difficult task portraying Vita Sackville-West, a woman not always easy to like. While Sackville-West was also brilliant (though not at Woolf’s rarified level), she was additionally narcissistic, hedonistic, and sometimes quite shallow and emotionally immature. While she did indeed love Woolf, she was also a source of a great deal of heartache. Arterton juggles these contradictory qualities quite artfully.
Perhaps Button’s biggest achievement was successfully bringing Virginia Woolf’s language to life without being too stuffy and highbrow. Woolf’s voice lives and breathes through the dialog, without ever coming across as arch or pretentious.
As a big-screen portrayal of a major literary icon, Vita & Virginia is exceptional, making Woolf accessible and understandable without compromising the intellectuality of the historical person.
What, When, Where
Vita & Virginia. Written and directed by Chanya Button. Opens September 6 at Ritz at the Bourse.