There are so many, many ways to stage queer love stories on our more accepting Hollywood screens in 2019. One popular recourse of the last year or two has been digging up the complex lives of historically queer women and turning them into the compelling, unapologetically queer narratives they were waiting to be (see: The Favourite or Wild Nights with Emily). Vita and Virginia is a natural part of that trend: a painfully well-documented romantic tug of war between two literary modernist giants.
Heavy handed is an understatement for Vita and Virginia. It’s the kind of movie where not one character seems to talk about anything other than the themes of the movie. Director Chanya Button seems to have poured all the care and attention possible into the look of the movie — striking colors and blocking that together make up an extraordinarily pretty movie — but stopped far short of the mark on all other aspects.
Elizabeth Debicki co-stars as Virginia, who appears only to be borrowing Woolf’s name for the sake of a premise. Debicki is an extremely beautiful blonde with a square face and a youthful appearance, which is somewhat at odds with the many images of a dark-haired, narrow-faced, older Virginia Woolf who the story is supposedly about. Where is Rachel Weisz or Nicole Kidman when you need them? The floaty, overly sexual performance from Debicki speaks less to a sense of the historical Woolf and more a sparkly ornament for the movie’s aesthetic.
Vita is slightly better: Gemma Arterton’s performance and delivery is suited to a much better movie. Unfortunately, it’s not in a better movie. It’s in this sexy-fied male-gaze laden romp which introduces the character of Virginia Woolf via a classically objectifying slow-pan up Debicki’s dancing body. Button imagines the story of two young literary women, the lesser-established Vita pining after the beautiful and powerful Woolf. Never mind the actual decade-wide age gap between the two, or the infamous dynamic of their relationship in which Vita toyed with Virginia as Virginia pursued her.
But I digress. The movie isn’t really about the storied literary relationship; it’s about how many close-ups of heavily moisturized women’s lips Button can squeeze into the runtime. The case could be made that this is a female gaze because it’s emphatically a woman watching, but I’m not buying it.
That this movie exists at all speaks — if speaks badly — to the fact that this kind of fluff film is considered marketable. And it is very marketable. Women’s complex love stories like The Favourite, Disobedience, and Wild Nights with Emily have made such stories more or less mainstream, with the result being wishy-washy renditions like Vita and Virginia.
In a way, it’s refreshing that a queer-love-story film is so un-unique it can afford to fail. Not everything is riding on the shoulders of each new enterprise. We get back gay movies along with subpar queer rom coms and female superhero thrillers.
That being said, this is such a rich and promising story that I was excited to see come to screen. Troves of historically queer icons like Woolf and Dickinson abound in the literary archives. Much like the New York Times’s belatedly added obituaries for notable women who weren’t included in the paper’s pages at the time of their death, we’re finally catching up (if slowly) with the non-straight narratives that haven’t been welcomed into Hollywood in past decades. Isn’t that a nice change from that blackmail moment in Mean Girls: She told everyone I’m a lesbian and it ruined my life. To then high-school-aged me, that felt entirely believable and natural as a threat. (Incidentally, I just married my beautiful wife this past weekend.)
There’s a lot to work through in historically queer narratives, now that we’ve finally reached the point where a queer character gets to be a character rather than a novelty. A whole subgenre of intricate biopics is waiting in the wings (with Bohemian Rhapsody and Vita and Virginia lurking nearby as a cautionary tale) ready to investigate the lives of queer people, especially queer women, through a more accepting lens.