Review: VITA & VIRGINIA Is A Frustratingly Slow Romance Inspired By A True Story

vita & virginia living room
Elizabeth Debicki as “Virginia Woolf” and Gemma Arterton as “Vita Sackville-West” in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Vita & Virginia, co-written and directed by Chanya Button, is a new romance telling the scandalous true story of the relationship between writer Virginia Woolf and her lover Vita Sackville-West. Unpleasant and over-stylized, this film is quite exhausting and disappointing.

Anyone who is familiar with the work of Virginia Woolf is sure to tell you that she was a wonderful writer whose work was truly revolutionary at the time. As such, a glimpse into her personal life could and should have been fascinating. Unfortunately, even though this movie is based on a true story, it ends up feeling like slightly more professional fan-fiction.

The character development in the film is absolutely terrible. Woolf is presented in the movie from Sackville-West’s perspective, and as such, she is glorified and romanticized. As a result, we are unable to get any deeper insight as to who she is on a deeper and more personal level. Sackville-West, on the other hand, is just an entirely underdeveloped character, and we are given little reason to connect with her.

For a film that is about scandal, the movie is far too inept at adequately establishing the stakes. Since we don’t particularly care for either character on an individual level, we don’t really buy into the relationship. In turn, this prevents us from sympathizing with their struggle. Although the film makes clear that their relationship is something that was taboo and frowned upon at the time, it fails to give them a compelling reason to take that risk.

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Gemma Arterton as “Vita Sackville-West” and Elizabeth Debicki as “Virginia Woolf” in Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Additionally, the pacing of the movie is quite slow. Clocking in at an hour and fifty minutes, this is a could have been at least twenty to thirty minutes shorter. There is more than enough story to make a compelling film, but the filmmakers did little with these true figures. Instead of playing off of our prior understandings and perceptions of Woolf, the movie presents a by-the-book romance.

Stylistically, the film feels like a cheap rip-off of Baz Luhrmann’s style. Although the production design and costuming are exquisite, the overly flashy cinematography and needlessly anachronistic soundtrack drag you out of the movie. By all means, this was a conscious decision by Button, perhaps to make the film feel more relevant to modern times, and this risk did not pay off.

It really is a shame that the movie isn’t better, as Elizabeth Debicki and Gemma Arterton are both very talented actresses. Unfortunately, the material does not allow them any room to breathe any life into Woolf or Sackville-West, respectively. Instead of seeing them become their characters, you see them as themselves in periodized garb, which is ultimately distracting.

Vita & Virginia wastes its talented cast and thoroughly interesting real-life subjects on a film that is conventional and boring. Although this movie may have its fair share of admirers, particularly those who romanticize Woolf as does the protagonist, it will likely be forgotten by most others within months or even weeks from now.

Vita & Virginia is now playing in theaters and hits VOD on August 30.

By Sean Boelman

Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.

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