Vita Sackville-West was a British socialite and a popular writer in the 1920s. She was also fond of scandalizing the society in which she lived, especially with her female lovers. Virginia Woolf was also a writer at the time, though less popular, but Lady Sackville-West set her sights on her after meeting at a dinner party. What followed was a relationship that lasted a decade and was responsible for one of Woolf’s greatest books, “Orlando.” Vita & Virginia is the story of these two women as they come together passionately for a while and then remain friends for a while. The film feels a lot like the lost lesbian episode of Downton Abbey, and while the performances are quite good, the costumes gorgeous, and the sets to die for, this telling of the famous literary romance does leave you less than satisfied and wishing Julian Fellowes had had a hand in it.
The gist: Vita (Gemma Arterton, Lost in Austen, Tamara Drewe) is married to a diplomat who is aware of her affairs and has a few of his own. It is a very “modern” relationship. Virginia (Elizabeth Debicki, Widows, The Great Gatsby) on the other hand is in a chaste marriage to the devoted Leonard. Neither husband is terribly upset by their wive’s relationship, though Leonard is concerned for fragile Virginia’s psyche. The most troubled is Vita’s mother Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini) who threatens her daughter with penury if she gets caught in another lesbian affair. But Mother be damned! Vita will live the life she chooses and she’s attracted to Virginia partly because she seems unattainable. But attainable she is and there is a passionate but short affair. And when Vita moves on, as she has on many other occasions, Virginia is initially crushed, but ultimately uses Vita as her muse to write one of her greatest books.
It’s sad that this story of two passionate women of extremely opposite temperaments and social classes isn’t more compelling. It should have more depth but comes off as a semi-biographical melodrama. And mostly you don’t have a clear idea at the end who these women were. It did, however, make me want to rewatch the fabulous Orlando movie directed by Sally Potter starring Tilda Swinton in the role that made her a star. I would recommend seeing Vita & Virginia for the performances, but wait for it on your favorite streaming service.