'Vita & Virginia' Review | BFI Flare Festival 2019
Back in 2014 (when I originally started JG Review) I would sneakily upload blog posts in the back row of my GCSE computer lessons and hope to one day cover Film as a member of the press. While I haven't (yet) figured out a way to get paid for that, I have managed to get into film festival coverage which is, honestly, still shocking to me. Before I begin my review of Vita & Virginia, then, I want to quickly thank anyone who has ever visited and read something on this blog - your clicks and support have literally opened doors that were too heavy for me to push on my own. To any of my regular readers and supporters: because of you I'm currently covering my second Film Festival, and not for a student paper or magazine but for this blog - thank you! You can expect an imminent wave of reviews and features covering films highlighted in this year's BFI Flare Film Festival, an event aimed at uplifting and showcasing the latest LGBTQ+ cinema. I'm hoping to be able to exclusively interview some directors who have brought their films to the festival, but it's about time I spoke about the first I got to see here... Vita & Virginia covers the scandalous love affair between Virginia Woolf, one of the 20th century's most influential and revered authors, and Vita West, her contemporary rival and more financially successful peer. The film was directed by 32 year-old Chanya Button who is credited alongside Eileen Atkins for the screenplay (Atkins also penned the play on which this film was based). Both in front of and behind the camera, then, this film prioritizes the female voice. It is the lens's female gaze which offers audiences a refreshingly respectful take on same-sex female relationships. Never in this film are the queer female leads unnecessarily eroticized in the ways we have come to expect in this male dominated media landscape. Any sexual or sexually-charged elements within the film are purely present to serve the characters in the story and never to titillate a straight male audience. This marks yet another circumstance in which the relationship between director and protagonist has been recently called into question; should we make an effort going forward to pair minority characters with directors of the same self-identification? This approach undoubtedly served Wonder Woman and Black Panther, after all. Gemma Arterton here portrays Vita West, the infamous author who we follow as she attempts to seduce Ms. Woolf. Her character is initially funny and mesmerizing on-screen and, while it feels reductive to comment on a female lead's wardrobe, it would be criminal not to acknowledge the film's costume department for curating such gorgeous contemporary 'fits. Without giving away too many spoilers (if you can, indeed, refer to historical non-fiction as such) it is her arc throughout the film which proves most engaging. Atkins and Button have here penned a nuanced and fascinating approach to the reality of historical, queer love. This approach focuses on the way in which that struggle intersects with contemporary womanhood (and it's limitations) too. This well-explored angle to the West-Woolf story offers the film much of its success.
Virgina Woolf is played by Elizabeth Debicki. The audience doesn't meet the character until a good 20 minutes into the film but, once we do, she is as instantly absorbing to the movie-goer as she is to West. The character is at times hard for the audience to access on account of her riddle-like dialogue and closed off nature.This seems to be a strategic move, though; as Woolf finally relaxes into her identity as a queer woman we are finally allowed to access her. Woolf becomes funnier, warmer and bright in the same way any other queer person does once they've learnt self-acceptance. It's touches like these which make the characters feel authentically queer in a way that some LGBTQ+ movies fail to convey.
Alongside Arterton and Debicki, the third star of the film is its cinematography. Almost every single shot is framed with purpose and a style which feels both fresh and perfectly suited to the period-drama genre. Button has a distinctive vision, one which favours organic symmetry and soft colours. This visual flair is partnered with the film's very cool use of CGI which, though initially disarming, elevates the film and offered a stunning visual metaphor for the way in which Woolf's mind worked. The CGI also fits aesthetically with the film's naturalistic cinematography in general, allowing it to contribute to the mise en scene instead of jarring the viewer - The Lady in the Van's 'Jesus' sequence springs to mind as an example of the latter. This style serves the film's slow pace, a pace which some critics have found too dull but which I found comforting. The film is excessively wordy and, yes, a little slow, but in a world of Avengers and Aqua-men it's a nice change of pace to sink into a cinema seat in the same way you'd sink into a book. Don't get me wrong, there were certainly three or four occasions in which a character would speak in such a wordy manner that I couldn't really keep up with what they were saying, but I didn't find the script anger-inducing or frustrating. It felt right for a film about two novelists to be so intricate. So, while the script is admittedly too flowery and its pace is undoubtedly slow, I still really enjoyed Vita & Virginia. The film is an excellent companion to Woolf's beloved 'Orlando' and ultimately stands as a respectful and thoughtful ode to not just West and Woolf but the contemporary queer white woman. It would certainly make for a cosy matinee when it releases wide in the UK on 12th July this year.
Written by James Green
Originally published at www.jg-review.blogspot.com