“It doesn’t really matter what time we’re in,” says Elizabeth Debicki, “we’re always trying to figure out what the hell it might mean to love somebody, to be faithful to somebody. It takes a great deal of courage to throw those questions up in the air and not quite know where they’re going to land.
“For me, that’s what the Bloomsbury Set were constantly doing, experimenting with life and pushing against the confines of what society tells us we should be happy with. It’s still pretty radical.”
In the wake of Yorgos Lanthimos’s award-sweeping The Favourite and Keira Knightley in Colette comes a further challenge to the tired tropes of period drama and a rewriting of hitherto quashed LGBTQ+ themes into our historical tales: Vita & Virginia.
‘I wasn’t receiving scripts like this then: about intelligent women… We hear so much about male writers but this was one of the first stories I’d heard where the focus was female writers’
In her 1920s-set film, British director Chanya Button reveals a fresh angle on lauded writer Virginia Woolf, mining her letters to fellow writer, socialite, friend and – for a time – lover, Vita Sackville-West, to unearth a profound moment of strength and exhilaration in what is otherwise often characterised as a life fraught with mental health challenges and vulnerability.
The story of their tumultuous affair plays out within the bohemian bubble of the infamous Bloomsbury Group of artists and is told through the evocative language of their private letters, capturing the burgeoning passion and admiration, plus frustration and despair, that inspired Woolf to write her boundary-pushing 1928 novel, Orlando, for which Vita was her muse.
One-time Bond girl Gemma Arterton, 33, came on board early to play the seductively charming Vita, but also as producer, after being sent a draft script by Eileen Aitkin: “This was back in 2012,” she explains. “I wasn’t receiving scripts like this then: about intelligent women, these literary legends. We hear so much about male writers but this was one of the first stories I’d heard where the focus was female writers.”
Star of The Night Manager Debicki eventually took on the role of Virginia, though the 28-year-old admits being daunted by the prospect when she was approached mid-way through shooting Steve McQueen’s Widows: “I’d read Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse but would not have called myself a Woolf aficionado,” she says.
“If you notice, she does an interesting thing to people who feel connected to her: she becomes a beacon in their lives. This emblem, this symbol of truth, like a clarifying lens through which to observe things. Funnily enough, she is like that for me now, but I never had that with her before.”
Debicki says she had “never read anything” like the script developed by Aitkin with Button from her 1992 play, based on the two women’s poetic letters: “I absolutely had no idea how to approach playing her. I never got to a point where I felt, ‘absolutely, I’m perfect this.’ It remained a blur of terror. I just chose to jump into it.”
What followed was an “enlightening” and “life-affirming” process of climbing into Woolf’s mind, and poring meticulously over her diary entries and body of work: “She was a very prolific journaler. For an actor, a diary is a really interesting roadmap to a person’s physical and mental space.”
What she found in those pages informed her nuanced portrayal, akin to Nicole Kidman‘s Academy Award-winning interpretation in The Hours, but also captures moments of pleasure, elation and lucidity: “When we think about Virginia, we always jump to the end,” says the actress.
“The thing that really surprised me was actually how she spent most of her life aggressively interrogating what it meant to be alive. It wasn’t a given to her – she fought this daily battle with her various ‘demons.’
“I found this unbelievable wit, lightness and frankness. A kind of visceral, often quite brutal, honest examination of humans and women, the times and sexuality and scandal. Vita really illuminated this part of her that she never had touched upon by anybody, and she suddenly felt very present.”
‘On the one hand you had Vita, who was so free and comfortable in her body, was so sexual and had lovers left, right and centre, then Virginia, a woman who literally can’t be touched by anybody’
Crucial to the film’s potency is the way the two actresses play off each other: “We dove ludicrously deep into the roles,” says Arterton.
“There was an immediate friendship and chemistry between us and we felt very comfortable with one another. We have very different energies: I’m the more vivacious and Elizabeth is definitely more cerebral. I’m very maternal. That helped us with the relationship.
“On the one hand you had this woman who was so free and comfortable in her body, was so sexual and had lovers left, right and centre, then a woman who literally can’t be touched by anybody,” she adds.
“Virginia had a real difficulty with sexuality and being physical. Famously, she didn’t have a sexual relationship with her husband. And believed that she couldn’t. That there was something wrong with her. But Vita unlocked something in Virginia. It was quite extraordinary that a woman who was so much in her head and her imagination could suddenly have this physical feeling.”
There are some brave decisions that bring the contemporary into contact with the period-era. The impeccably designed sets, mustered from a minuscule budget, were “authentic, but really expressionistic,” Button tells me. “It’s sort of remixed and expressed in a different order to the way you’ll see it in some of the real places.”
Sex and sexuality are discussed candidly across kitchen tables. Virginia’s hallucinations are made manifest in CGI-rendered birds which circle her relentlessly.
Throbbing electronic beat
Meanwhile proceedings are often infused with a throbbing electronic beat, the result of a collaboration with Isobel Waller-Bridge – sister of Fleabag’s Phoebe – and partly inspired by the Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works, composed by Max Richter:
“In the Orlando part, there was this mad electro soundtrack. It totally worked for what the book represents, this kind of gender-bending, crazy, almost sci-fi-like book about a man that becomes a woman, charging through time and space,” explains Arterton.
For Button, it was important for “a contemporary audience to feel welcomed into the story. Just because a film is set in 1928, it doesn’t need to feel like it was made then.”
‘Younger LGBTQ+ audiences need to be able watch period films about great moments in history or literature or art and see that who they are is reflected in history’
She sought to express the “forward-thinking, revolutionary edge” to this non-conformist group of artists, who bent institutions such as marriage to their will, albeit while protected by their position of privilege.
“It’s not a biopic. It’s about a specific moment in Virginia’s life that is less visible because of how controversial it was at the time. And we’re shining a light on it now because it’s not controversial…” says Button.
“The younger LGBTQ+ audience need to be able watch period films about great moments in history or literature or art and see that who they are is reflected in history.”
‘A love story’
Arterton has emerged in recent years as a prominent force for delivering female-led stories. “I’ve realised you have to kind of give a little bit to the industry. So I’m kind of doing one for them, one for me. It’s stuff like this, that is challenging and showing a different perspective on women’s experiences that really excites me.”
Debicki, who has just filmed psychological thriller The Burnt Orange Heresy with Mick Jagger (“it was pretty wild”) and is now shooting Christopher Nolan’s top-secret action epic Tenet in Estonia (“I can’t say anything about it!”), also feels strongly that more such films need to be made and supported: “It’s vital we have the resources to put all kinds of relationships on screen and to take risks and be brave with them, whether or not it works for some people.
“Vita and Virginia, as well as an exploration of two really brilliant minds, is a love story. It’s very simple in a way and yet I hadn’t really seen that before.”
‘Vita & Virginia’ is in UK cinemas from Friday 5 July