Chanya Button's 'Vita & Virginia' Imprisons and Cages Virginia Woolf

Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki in Vita & Virginia (2019) (© 2017 - Orlando / Blinder Films Limited / IMDB)

Looking upon Virginia Woolf with an immature and childish creative lust, writer/director Chanya Button and co-writer Eileen Atkins reduce her to a bland literary figure in Vita & Virginia, leaving us to remember the contrarian truth.

Vita & Virginia
Chanya Button

Thunderbird Releasing

5 Jul 2019 (UK) / 23 Aug 2019 (US)


"The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages" - Virginia Woolf, An Unwritten Novel (1920).

To look upon the portraits of any number of authors is to be deceived. H.G. Wells presents as a stuffy and unimaginative headmaster, while Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson would never strike you as particularly interesting figures to cross paths with. Nor would Virginia Woolf, Shirley Jackson or Angela Carter, and yet concealed behind their bland exteriors lay enthralling minds and imaginations.

Director Chanya Button and co-writer Eileen Atkins' Vita & Virginia (2018), dramatises the true story of Virginia Woolf's (Elizabeth Debicki) intimate relationship with aristocrat Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton), who would be the impetus for Woolf's experimental novel, Orlando: A Biography (1928).

The grave error committed by the filmmakers is their struggle to identify the film's target audience. If their intention is to reach out to Woolf aficionados, then there is little here in terms of detail that will draw and then hold their interest. On the other hand, requiring a knowledge of and familiarity with the person and the writer makes Vita & Virginia a less than ideal introductory piece.

Elizabeth Debecki as Virginia Woolf and Gemma Arterton as Vita Sackville-West (© 2017 - Orlando / Blinder Films Limited / IMDB)

The first person we see is not Virginia but the socialite and lesser populist author, Sackville-West. From the outset, hands are around the throat of the film, choking and depriving it of air. The actor should be considered a prism through which a character comes into being, whether it be a fictitious or real-life character. Throughout this film, however, Arterton functions as an oppressive force. Rather than creating the impression of an actress playing a character, it appears as though Arterton is playing herself, thereby suffocating Sackville-West and consequently the film.

Debicki's portrayal of Virginia Woolf is therefore hampered by her weak co-star, as well as a script and director, which are lacking in vision. This leaves her rendition of the author hanging in limbo and difficult to critique owing to these extenuating factors. Yet in contrast to Nicole Kidman's performance of Woolf in Stephen Daldry's The Hours (2002), there is a theatricality to the performances from both Arterton and Debicki, a refusal to transcend a vision of the rigidity of the past and its inhabitants. Classical in its feel for a previous time, the deliberate and absence of naturalism in the performances of its lead actresses, casts Vita & Virginia as a better fit with the stage than the screen.

Amongst the cast, the metaphorical diamond in the rough is Peter Ferdinando as publisher and husband Howard Woolf. While the scenes between the two women are the heart of the film his performance, combined with what comes across as stronger scripting, creates a desire for his to be more of a centrepiece role, and the film to revolve around the relationship between husband and wife. What occurs in the unfolding of the drama is in effect an incursion of the central relationship by the supporting one, that hinders the intent of the story itself as envisioned by its storytellers. Yet in spite of this intrusion, the nature of Howard and Virginia's relationship, restricted to emotional intimacy only, and their natural interplay from two people that have come to know and care for one another is decidedly more compelling than her newfound friendship and intimacy with Sackville-West. In Ferdinando's presence, who is a tonic to the Arterton effect, Debicki's performance is more assured, he bringing a naturalism to her theatrical aesthetic.

Rupert Penry-Jones as Harold Nicolson and Gemma Arterton as Vita Sackville-West (© 2017 - Orlando / Blinder Films Limited / IMDB)

In a scene towards the film's conclusion, Virginia says to Vita, "Biographies have always described the things that happened to the person, not the person to whom those things happened." Button's film compiles rather than looks at the events surrounding her experimental biography of a woman. It is counter-intuitive to Woolf's intentions as expressed within the work, and yet ironically, the storytellers take no heed to the words they wrote into the script.

Artists are curiosities, fascinating us, whether it be with their vivid imaginations, creating art that is a social and cultural response, to even the fragile artist, such as the bi-polar Woolf. Yet one feels that Button and Atkins look upon this literary figure with an infatuation, even an immature and childish creative lust, the eyes and uninspired thoughts imprisoning and caging Woolf's enthralling mind, imagination and person in what can only be described as a lethargic drama. And to think of Woolf's vitality, her remarkable storytelling through stream of consciousness, leaves one saddened at the reduction of this literary figure to a bland individual that flirted with controversy through her literary work, and personal relationship with Sackville-West.

One wonders, if a male director had been responsible for this film, would we admonish him severely for the reduction of a great female novelist and essayist as shades of patriarchy? Yet here, it is women that are the culprits, and perhaps Vita & Virginia, and its filmmakers should be challenged for how they have portrayed Virginia Woolf, and the person to whom the events happened.

Related Articles Around the Web




The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.


90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.