The Unicorn Scale: Vita and Virginia

By Jennie Roberson

October 04, 2020



It’s probably clear by now I have a deep and abiding love for Virginia Woolf. At least, anyone who has followed my articles the past few posts can gather that. If you ever come over to my house, you’d know by the big typewriter I painted that hangs on my living room wall.

Woolf was instrumental in me seeing literary proof in my baby bi years that my bisexuality was legitimate, beautiful, and worthy of great art. Who can ever forget the description of kissing someone of the same sex for the first time as “a match burning in a crocus”? That image still races to my mind when I kiss a woman for the first time— along with the sensation of fireworks, of course.

So when I was surfing across the streaming channels in search of something to watch and came across 2019’s Vita & Virginia, I immediately had to add it to “Stuff To Watch”. How would this recent film cover one of the great same-sex affairs of the 20th century? I knew I had to find out— and that I’d have to write about what I discovered.

Before I get too far into exploring this flick, I should deal out a few disclaimers before we continue. First and foremost, there will be SPOILERS for this romantic drama. If this is your first time around these parts (or you’d just like a refresher on the metric in play), head on over to this for a quick rundown, or read our Media Entry here.

Vita & Virginia covers the relationship between Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki), an English novelist and essayist, and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton), a socialite and writer in her own right, that emerged during 1920s London. After meeting at a party at the famous literary circle, the Bloomsbury Group, Vita becomes fascinated— to the point of obsession— with getting to know the guarded but brilliant Virginia.

What I Liked:

This film holds nothing back about how the characters think and feel at any moment, because their historical sources never did. (To whit: hundreds of love letters between Virginia and Vita exist.) Following around writers who were known for pioneering the stream-of-consciousness form of expression makes it easy to telegraph their fears, their hopes— and especially their desires. Vita & Virginia is filled to the brim with the characters’ theses on love, marriage, and attraction; the film even opens with a radio broadcast of Sackville-West and her husband extolling on the virtues of their matrimonial arrangement.

Although they are yin and yang in the form of their expression, both Vita and Virginia put on clear display how they feel about each other, leaving no audience member in doubt of their mutual sexual attraction. In fact, much of the dialogue from the screenplay was lifted directly not only from Eileen Atkins’ original stage play, but from the letters themselves. (Sometimes this makes the film feel like a recitation of poetry, but it’s not enough to make the themes or emotions inaccessible.)

Not only that, but the two authors are not the only bi characters on display— we see and watch discussions between Vita and her diplomat husband, Sir Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) who acts on his queer desires but does so with the discretion— often begging Vita to follow suit, forming the heart of their relationship’s conflict. 

Also, this may seem like a no-brainer of an observation, but the female gaze is strong in Vita & Virginia. Sure, we’re covering a passionate same-sex affair here, so that seems like it would be inevitable. But even in previous retellings of this relationship on film, the strength of the female gaze may not be as strongly felt as it is here under the deft direction of Chanya Button. 

I also appreciated how the film didn’t shy away from showing Woolf’s mental health issues, at times even utilizing magic realism to depict her struggles and hallucinations. While her work was not as a result of her bouts of depression or suicidal ideation, those elements are intrinsic to understanding her, both as a woman and as an artist. They were a prism for her that I’m grateful the film did not shy away from.

What I Didn't Like:

For all the trappings of “Virginia Woolf” being uttered in nearly every academic writing as the premier bisexual modernist, the word “bi” itself is never used. The closest the film ever gets is a character using the term “Sapphic pageant”. I’m all for the poetry of that, but this movie was from last year. Will someone use the term, for crying out loud?! 

That said, it did remind me of this delightful exchange … 

It’s also fascinating to see the choice of casting Debicki as “Ginia”. That is not a knock either on the actress or how much she looks like Woolf. Rather, it’s a factual one— Debicki was in her mid-twenties when this was filmed, but Woolf was in her early forties when she started her affair with Sackville-West (who was a full decade younger than her). Taking this type of risk with that age difference, when Woolf was closer to middle age, had a different level of stakes at play that I think would have been fascinating to see played out. 

Also, I’ve said this elsewhere, but I loathe seeing these depictions of 1920s London with hardly any people of color. That really needs to stop— it’s not factual, and it’s a form of erasure. Quit it, cinema.

The Rating:

Much like when Vita first sets eyes on Virginia, I was entranced from the first moment of watching this film. Here we have a film containing multiple queer characters with strengths, flaws, and attractions that not only mirror their real-life counterparts, but of those in the sexually-fluid community at large. I don’t want to give away too many of its pleasures because I want people to discover it on their own, like I did. 

Sometimes— just sometimes— that “suggested movies” section on a streaming app gets it just right.