BFI Flare ‘Vita and Virginia’ Review: Transgressive Period Love Story

Vita Sackville-West is a struggling writer who finds herself constricted by the expectations that come with status and family. She becomes enamored with a fellow writer, Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki), but as the two become closer the nature of their relationship becomes unclear and perhaps even sinister.

Vita and Virginia excels in the ambiguity of the relationship between it’s two leads. Sometimes lustful, but only tentatively. Vita often seems less Virginia’s liberator and more her tormentor. She is every aspect of life that Virginia craves and fears and yet Vita’s motives often seem elusive. It is frequently unclear whether her feelings for Virginia stem from professional jealousy, simple lust or a genuine affection.

Unfortunately I feel this is not the intentions of the film makers and more the product of a slightly messy script. Vita’s children, for example, are often used as character motivation for Vita (she fears losing them in the event of scandal) and yet they are present in precisely one scene. I greatly enjoyed the promise that Vita had ulterior motives in her affections for Virginia, or at least deep character flaws that would forbid her from making her happy, but neither are fully explored.

Perhaps inevitably the worldly offends the withdrawn and the relationship sours and the film does become very interesting once motivations become clear. Both are trying to hurt each other, and virginia feels she may have found the perfect method; to expose Vita. To simply illustrate her as she is, a prospect that terrifies Vita.

It’s very refreshing to have a tale of lesbian romance that is characterized not by the barriers imposed upon the could by the society they live in but by themselves. Viginia is terrified of intimacy and being hurt whilst Vita is easily bored and fails to understand the fragility of those around her. The film’s best scenes make full use of this tension.

Elizabeth Debicki shines amidst an able cast. She has the commanding voice and conviction to deliver some of Woolf’s words authoritatively. She is a lithe figure that seems fragile and ethereal. As her sickness begins to affect her mind, she gains a haunting quality. Perhaps the most affecting moment of the film finds her desperately trying to express a thought only to be failed by her deteriorating mental health.

The film employs some interestingly transgressive techniques. Isobel Waller-Bridge provides an electronic score that is as often thrilling as it is distracting, and CGI plants occasionally sprout from the environment, representing awakening. Both of these conceits are used far too rarely to not feel out of place. Far more fitting is the fabulous cinematography that bathes it’s characters in rich natural light, illuminating the gorgeous period costume and settings. Director Chanya Button presents the women earnestly presents the women speaking to camera when recounting their famous letters. It brings the words to life  marvelously.

Vita and Virginia is an elusive and sometimes frustrating film. Whilst promising sometimes to be a subversion of typical period gay love stories, it’s not quite subversive or provocative enough to fulfill it’s brief. It is however complemented by a committed performance from Elizabeth Debicki and some of Woolf’s beautiful writing in it’s script. It’s only frustrating that it doesn’t bite a little harder.

Four Stars

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