Directed by Chanya Button, Vita and Virginia tells the story of the passionate love affair between iconic authors Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki). Through her unique vision, the film explores not only the impact of these women as writers, but their progressive feminist voices as well. Having loved the works of Virginia Woolf since her youth, Button argues that there is much for a story like this to say in our current cultural climate. As a result, in many ways, she feels that the lives of these women projected contemporary values and ideas.
“I think the past has a lot to teach us about the future, especially at a time sort of globally, politically, where we’re really uncertain about [things]…,” she believes. “I think the past has a lot to teach us about the future. That’s not why I made Vita and Virginia but my love of literature and history makes me believe that the past can tell us a lot about the future. Also, it’s a film set in the 1920s, but Vita and Virginia lead lives that would be progressive even for now. They were both married and their marriages were incredibly open and supportive. Their husbands were incredible men… who never held their wives back from anything personally, professionally, [or] romantically. They were enormously progressive about gender and sexuality and art. So, [the film is] set in the 1920s, but it feels like a very progressive subject matter for me. They were such unconventional women and they had such an unconventional relationship [that] I knew I would need to approach the film in a very unconventional way to be true to the sort of the spirit of that.”
One manner in which these women were unconventional for their time is revealed through their views on masculinity and femininity. With views that on gender equality that were extremely progressive, the women found genuine energy from each other that fed their creativity.
“What Virginia understood was that your essential self can have both masculine and feminine qualities. Vita enacted that in her life by having relationships with both men and women. I think she had a sexual appetite and approach to romance that was more stereotypically male in that she would pursue and conquer mainly women, sometimes men. I think our film explores that too. There is masculine and feminine in everyone and I think our film has a very specific approach to vulnerability. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to make the film as well because it’s a film about Virginia who is a person who was treated by her community and by the outside world as someone who was incredibly fragile because of the struggles she had because of [her] emotional, psychological challenges. Whereas actually this relationship which everybody presumed would really overwhelm, her own creative genius came to her rescue and she wrote this novel as a way of sort of digesting and conquering this experience. In a way, it’s a film as well about a woman’s heart and mind and soul and the creative genius rescuing herself from what is a very universal experience, which is a very sort of intoxicating love affair that isn’t going well.”
In development of the film, Button was as thorough as possible in her research, making sure to get the support of the families involved. However, she also feels that there’s a subjectivity to the film that makes it exciting for her.
“I was really, really keen to bring our own response to it,” Button explains. “I think what’s different is that it’s mine, Gemma and Elizabeth’s version of this story. It’s a really expressionistic piece. Judith Nicholson (Vita Sackville-Wests granddaughter) and Viriginia Nicholson (Vanessa Bell’s—Virginia Woolf’s sister—granddaughter) have been incredibly supportive of the film and our research was very respectful and detailed. So, it had their blessing, which was very. But it’s also our response to it. It is in itself expressionistic. I love that none of our actors look exactly like them or sound exactly like them. I wanted to take these actors who are so wonderful and it’s their approach. It’s what we can know about Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West from their writings, their letters, their work, their families, mixed with Gemma’s voice and Elizabeth’s voice.”
As is the case in any biography, there is a balance between truth and fiction within the film. Regarding this balance, Button argues that there is only so much that one can understand about a person given the information available.
“In a way that film’s got sort of this amazing kind of meta thing going on where it is a film with a biographical leaning about Virginia writing a sort of non-biography of Vita. If you looked at my text messages today and said what I was saying to everyone, you would go to certain picture of what’s going on in my life in your mind that might not be true exactly what’s going on. So, letters and writings are only fragments that suggest what’s going on so we can’t know exactly. I was very aware of that making the film in a quite liberating way because we’re saying that we will do this extensive research and be as authentic as we can, but… I think biography is fascinating. You can chase the truth, but you can never know it.”
In our current cultural climate, Vita and Virginia continues the growing trend of allowing the opportunity for different voices to speak to the masses. According to Button, it’s stirring to be a part of something on a broad scale that is opening the door for others to find their voice.
“I think it’s really exciting because, as filmmakers, we can often feel really isolated from each other,” she states. “Actors know more about directors than directors [know about each other] because they work with more of them. We can feel really isolated from each other, so I think it’s really exciting [for there to be] a wind where we’re all going in the same direction. That’s really cool. I think it’s really exciting. I think it does have an overlap with a kind of political conversation where we’re talking about how can we open up the spectrum and hear different voices.”
“I think there absolutely is that sense of finding a voice [within the film] but I think that, in the case of Vita and Virginia, these women have found their voices. There’s nothing adolescent about them. There’s nothing pubescent about them. It’s not coming of age anything. These women are of age and I think more films should be made about women of age. I see a lot of kind of younger women on screen and I think that’s brilliant too. You’re either pubescent or you’re an elderly sage–sort of Yoda–and there’s a lot that goes on in between I think. These women aren’t finding their voices, but they’re being heard. We’re listening to them for the first time. They are heard by their husbands in the film. They’re heard by their communities in the film. They’re making brilliant work that people think is fantastic. So I’ve tried to make film where they’re not finding their voices. They know them. They’re listening to each other. They’re listened to within their worlds and it’s us who’s listening to them for the first time.”
In light of this, as a woman director, Button is also thrilled at the opportunity to have a chance to speak her own voice through film as well. Nevertheless, she also maintains that her motivation remains her desire to offer a different perspective as opposed to any direct political agenda.
“I think the kind of the work is very separate from the movement,” she reflects. “I think it’s really important that I keep that very much in the front of my mind. I think I wouldn’t make good films if I cooked up an agenda and then tried to make films that chase that agenda. In my mind I keep things very, very separate. There’s an intersection because I’m interested in a female perspective on life… What I’d like to do is make films that offer a different perspective, whether that’s a female perspective, whether that’s has to do with class or race or whatever. I think we’ve talked a lot about the male gaze and I think we’ve talked less about the female gaze. I’d like to make films that have a female gaze because I don’t know what it is. I’d like to make something that tries to look for it. but there’s not an agenda. Both things really interest me and, in my mind, I keep them very separate. I enjoy having conversations about it, but it’s not why I’m on set.”
Vita and Virginia premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.