“If you leave me stranded, I will hurt you”
Chanya Button’s biographical romantic drama Vita & Virginia (2018) portrays the love affair between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sachville-West, which took place between 1922 and 1929, and has been immortalised in a collection of love letters exchanged between the two women. The script itself has been adapted from the 1992 play Vita & Virginia by Dame Eileen Atkin. This information is crucial, as it serves as a point of reference for the film’s stifled, word-dense world, which becomes the perfect incubator for the work that has marked Virginia Woolf as one of the greatest writers of the century. Inspired by Vita’s unabashed fluidity of expression, with her free exploration of a character that the world would strain to categorise as either male or female, Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando was born.
The Irish-British co-production is set against a backdrop of bohemian high society in 1920s. Vita (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia (Elizabeth Debicki) give into the slow progression of their thoughts and desires, falling for a connection that will leave them both teetering on the edge of madness. With the individual complexities of their characters often standing in the way, the two women have to embrace the unpredictability of life – and its submission to the willful airs of the heart.
The film is a somewhat dizzying portrayal of the past, with music that is starkly at odds with the historical period. Perhaps by being so jarringly modern and out of place, it is in fact trying to allude to the pervasiveness of the topic – haughty and defiant of what we refer to as time itself. What seems to support this observation is the film’s heavy reliance on medium shots, which show people from the waist up. This technique forces the audience to focus on the characters themselves, rather than the environment their lives are span in.
Sadly, the allure of the story is strangled between one line of dialogue and the next, as the disproportion between the characters’ eloquent speeches and the events they allude to conceals much of their appeal. To make matters worse, this verbal inundation drowns any hint of silence, which in itself holds the intricacies of the heart. When it is finally allowed to thrum undisturbed, it gifts the film with heightened self-awareness – a genuine recognition of its intent.
The passion ignited between Vita and Virginia is soulless and mechanical until they are allowed to dive into each other’s eyes in a moment of teased seduction, one that banishes all words from the women’s constricted hearts. It lasts merely a moment, but hints at what could have been achieved if the film had not tried to resemble the play it was based on so desperately.
Perhaps that is Vita & Virginia‘s greatest downfall – the film’s incessant love affair with telling the audience about passion, rather than illustrating it. This seems even more jarring in film, than it would in a novel. And so, stripped of the subliminal messaging it could have massaged into the audience’s mind, the story shows the challenge of conquest, not the despair of longing.
Fascination becomes obsession, but one verging on discomfort and mistrust. These confusing aspects of the romance portrayed on-screen give rise to quite a toxic union, one that exists only in the space between one blurry blink, and the dreaded next – the one that promises stability and clarity of mind. This, by default, reflects quite poorly on the unsettling and, at times, unhinged protagonists – which naturally does not bode well for the timid spark trying to ignite the story’s heated romance.
Perhaps if the film had given into the appeal of stylised cinematogrpahy, some of the unspoken emotion could have bled through its glassy surface. Dimmed tones and vivid colours could have been infused with the artistic language to manipulate emotion, and allude to indescribable sensuality. This potential comes through in the moment just before the women’s first sexual encounter. They sit huddled close together on the carpet of a gloomy room, its walls and their cheeks licked by the glow of a nearby fireplace. The rest, unfortunately, does little to sate the eyes. And so, the film gains the air of a half-baked TV drama.
What Vita & Virginia offers, however, is a certain naturalistic discussion about the many masks of love. Aside from the obvious bisexuality and open marriages, which had to translate to film because of their roots in the women’s actual lives, the film explores the selflessness of love in the only way it can – through its dialogue. We hear about the corrosiveness of an all-consuming passion that begs to be called love. However, its very possessiveness is at odds with the singe of devotion that can withstand the ravenous flame of lust. This exploration of the topic is quite profound, and no doubt capable of enlightening a few minds even today.
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