Adapted from Eileen Atkin’s 1994 play of the same name, Vita and Virginia is based on the real-life romance between aristocratic socialite and author Vita Sackville-West and literary icon Virginia Woolf. With a scandalous romance, the glamour of the 1920s, and famous works of literature, Vita and Virginia’s story in the right hands could have been a very special film. Unfortunately, despite some strong acting and beautiful cinematography, this film is an uneven mess that never quite comes together.

When we first meet Vita (Gemma Arterton) it’s hammered into us that she’s a thoroughly modern woman; she drives her own car, wears pants, declares proudly that “Independence has no sex.” When Vita goes to a party hosted by, as her mother (Isabella Rosselini) describes,  “bohemian communist socialists” that she meets the elusive Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki). 

It’s made clear from their first meeting that their relationship will be a sexual one; Vita observes Virginia dancing from across the room with a decidedly male gaze. Virginia, as the object of desire, acknowledges that gaze and welcomes it.

Arterton and Debicki do what they can to save the film with their performances. Arterton is more than capable of showcasing the charm and insatiable lust of Vita, who while in an open marriage, had affairs with both men and women alike. And Debicki (who should have broken out after the criminally under-seen Widows) gives the strongest performance in the film. She is so good here she makes you forget all about a certain Australian actress who won an Oscar for portraying the same woman.

But despite these performances, the film falls apart under the direction of Chanya Button. While the melodic electro score (by Isobel Waller-Bridge) is beautiful and perhaps meant to show these women were not of their time, it takes you out of the story. The same goes for the decision to have the women read their letters to each other aloud while looking directly at the camera. It’s overly stagey and completely unnecessary. 

And then there’s the magical realism that’s thrown in to show Virginia’s increasingly unstable mental state. If it had been used all throughout the film perhaps it would have made more sense, but only used a few times it doesn’t work. Not to mention that Debicki is a more than capable performer who could have showcased Virginia’s bipolar disorder without a scene where a flock of birds who aren’t really there attack her.

The real-life Vita and Virginia continued a friendship long after their romance fizzled, until Virginia’s death in 1941, which for some reason, Button decided not to mention in the final title card was a suicide, although Virginia talks about death throughout the film.

Their relationship inspired one of Virginia’s most popular books, Orlando. If you’re curious about these fascinating women and their influence on each other, I recommend you read that book (or see the 1992 Tilda Swinton film adaptation) instead.

I’ve never been quite sure how I feel about Neil Jordan as a director. Sure, he’s made movies I like and I can appreciate him as a monumentally important figure in the landscape of Irish film; but he almost feels like an anti-auteur at times for how little a sense I get of who he actually is, as represented through his work. For one thing, he seems almost superhumanly mutable at times stepping between modes like dreamlike fairytale (The Company of Wolves), contemporary revenge thriller (The Brave One), political myth-making ( Michael Collins) and vampire bromance  (Interview with the Vampire). It’s almost like he’s the directorial equivalent of Mega Man or something.

So when I went in to Byzantium, his second foray into vampire town, it was with a deep need to pull something out of the film and reach some deeper understanding of Jordan as a film maker or at least hit on some juicy subtext like I did way back with Ondine.


Saorise Ronan and Gemma Arterton star as Eleanor and Clara, a mother-daughter vampire duo who settle in a small coastal town after being on the run from a mysterious secret society for 200 years. Arterton’s Clara is a dyed in the wool vampire femme fatale, posing as a hooker to prey on unsuspecting Johns and possessing a seemingly limitless supply of sheer tops. The much more altruistic Eleanor prefers to prey on the elderly, giving them release in their twilight years, like what people still think Obamacare is in the form of a pasty redhead in a hoodie.

The two are polar opposites. While Clara takes to lying like Neil Jordan to a scenic shot of a craggy coastline, Eleanor is compulsively honest. She writes her story periodically before throwing the pages to the wind and takes less care concealing her identity than Ben Affleck’s Daredevil. As the film unfolds, we learn more about the circumstances of their creation. Clara opens a brothel in an old bording home and Eleanor strikes up a nervous romance with a local hemophiliac (She can pick ’em, that one.) In the meantime, members of the mysterious order of vampires close in.

What really strikes me as interesting is that the film implies a rich and interesting mythology behind this version of the vampire myth. After all, no vampire movie can just play it old school these days. Vampires can only be created by taking some poor sod to a stone hut on a coastal island to receive the gift from “the nameless saint”, a process which culminates with the surrounding waterfalls and streams running bright red with blood, like someone is recreating the woodchipper scene from Fargo about eighty times just over the hill. It’s a striking image, if a bit silly.

The vampire order itself is likewise implied to be some far-reaching, possibly altruistic organization, describing themselves as “the pointed nails of justice” which even the characters of the film don’t seem to know the exact meaning. Somewhere, someone knows what all this means but the film treats it as a secondary concern, if at all, putting all the focus on Clara and Eleanor’s relationship.


The easiest interpretation of the film is that it’s all a feminist allegory for the oppression of women. The vampire order is hunting Eleanor and Clara because women vampires aren’t allowed to exist, much less propagate themselves as Clara did. The two endured countless assaults in their early lives; Clara was sold to a brothel and Eleanor was raised in an orphanage. After Clara be-vamped herself, she spirited off to vampire-creation island, taking Eleanor with her.

To call the film a feminist empowerment piece, like The Brave One, seems too reductive, especially since Clara and Eleanor are continually painted as lost souls; Eleanor desperate for human contact and Clara having long since numbed herself to it. Neither of them are particularly empowered figures, just two especially broken people who’ve been through some especially bad times. In that sense, I suppose the film is humanist if nothing else.

The film keeps flirting with subtexts or ideas that could have been the drive for the whole movie. Like how Eleanor’s the really dangerous one because of her desperate need to tell her story rather than Clara, who puts a button on things by quipping “knowing can be dangerous” before murdering a nosy teacher who learned too much. From this angle, Byzantium could be seen as a statement on the dark side of human connectivity but it feels anemic and barely-there, not explored in any real depth.

I keep searching, perhaps in vain, for some overreaching subtext. Some thread that leads me like a trail of Reese’s Pieces to what this film is really trying to say. More often than not, these trails don’t lead me to any greater understanding. Come to think of it, it’s very possible that I may have just expected too much of Jordan. I went in a relatively shallow film about two broken beings struggling for their place, hoping to find something deeper and more meaningful but Byzantium came up short.

Taken on the surface, Byzantium is a serviceable enough vampire yarn well acted by both Ronan and Arterton and with enough flair in its mythology to keep it intriguing in the bottomless sea of revisionist vampire stories we all seem to be drowning in these days.