There is a moment in Chanya Button’s long-awaited Vita & Virginia where all the adornments of the period drama fall away to peer within the timeless image of sexual discovery – as one Virginia Woolf, played in note-perfect peculiarity by Elizabeth Debicki, admits to her almost-lover Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) that she “cannot” give her what she longs for. Her body tense, her tone one of desperate confession, this insight into one of the greatest minds of the 20th century feels almost sacred.
The film, which screens at Outfest Los Angeles, charts the tumultuous relationship between the two writers from their first meeting in the literary circles of 1920s London. Enigmatic socialite Vita quickly becomes obsessed with oddball Virginia and, despite initial wariness, secures her returned devotion. Through the penning of various letters, the pair fall into a deep and severe love. Obstacles to their happiness come quick and fast, however, as Virginia’s mental state, Vita’s quickness to boredom, and their respective marriages produce complications that passion alone cannot overcome.
At the heart of Vita and Virginia’s bond is an intense torment. Neither woman can find true happiness within the other, and it is this intricacy that makes their romance so engaging: despite the helplessness of their situation, neither can stop their hunger for the other, a testament to the extraordinary strength of their desire. This longing is true to life – their extensive correspondence spanned 25 years, and consisted of over 500 letters. The bond between Vita and Virginia existed beyond physicality, teased from each other through the most passionate of prose.
To examine such raw emotion through film is a tall order, and one that Vita & Virginia does not always rise to. Masked in anachronistic EDM music, special effects and elaborate set dressing, the vulnerability of the central romance is often overshadowed. Where deafening silence and Debicki’s clear control of her character could otherwise deliver an illuminative interpretation of a woman broken, Vita & Virginia elects instead to portray her mental “crises” through visions of the otherworldly.
The strength of this interpretation is found in the small moments of intimacy, where the only words spoken are those with true meaning and all fanciful distractions are pushed aside. The relationship between Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf evades description in its almost inhuman passion; Vita & Virginia delves beneath the words to portray such passion with striking imagery. Chaste kisses and sharp sighs capture an inkling of the pair’s infamous longing, reimagining their relationship for a modern audience. As Virginia struggles to balance her emotions with her genius, Vita pushes harder for normality. As Virginia decides she is ready to commit, Vita retreats with heartless abandon. Their love, absurd as it is, seems incompatible with the world altogether – there is no happy ending to be found here.
In this portrait of a 1920s same-sex romance, Button successfully pays homage to the historical presence of queer cultural icons, and this is certainly an achievement worth celebrating. Framed by an overly-polished world, this interpretation offers glimmers of the ethereal devotion the two held for each other, but never quite captures the full extent of a romance that will continue to enthral for years to come.