Set in 1922, Vita and Virginia tells the story of the passionate love affair between iconic authors Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki). Though happily married, Vita is as well-known for her sexual dalliances with women as she is for her wealth and written work. When she is invited to meet Virginia, Vita is ecstatic and becomes infatuated with the notion of seducing her.
Based on the play written by Eileen Atkins (who also wrote the screenplay), Vita and Virginia explores not only their impact as writers, but their progressive feminist voices as well. As a result, when the opportunity came up to portray a ground-breaking woman like Virginia Woolf, actress Elizabeth Debicki jumped at the chance.
“I first read Virginia Woolf when I was 17, when I was an acting school,” Debicki recalls. “The first thing I read was A Room Of One’s Own. I used to have to take the train for almost an hour each way to school and I have very distinct memories of reading on the train. And I read it a lot too. It’s a tiny book. So I read it quite a few times. I found it seminal. When I think back to it, it really changed a lot of my thinking about independence. I read To The Lighthouse at some point and didn’t keep under my pillow or anything. Then, when Chanya asked me to play this, I locked myself up in an attic room and read everything like a mad woman. So, that was my relationship with them.”
“I wish I [had been] a progressive 17-year-old feminist woman that read Virginia Woolf,” Arterton responds emphatically. “I didn’t even know about Virginia Woolf. I came from a background [that wasn’t very academic]. So, it wasn’t until Eileen Atkins handed me the script that I started reading about Virginia and Vita and then I just read everything. I think that Mrs. Dalloway is one of the most perfect pieces of writing ever. At the time, Vita was the more successful writer. She was a best-selling writer and, though was known for her romantic trysts, she was an okay writer. She completely idolized Virginia and thought she was a genius. I think something in Vita and Virginia and Orlando is this wanting to be better than they are… I tried to read Vita’s work with the same sort of gusto. I feel like Vito really excelled in her letters because she was a very passionate, seductive and direct. Their letter writing is much more fun to read.”
With this in mind, in any attempt to bring two such essential literary icons to the screen, it becomes imperative to perfect their use of language. Despite having access to their numerous letters to one another, one of the greatest challenges for Arterton and Debicki was giving life to the heightened nature of the dialogue
“It was kind of interesting because the play that Eileen Atkins wrote is the letters. It’s practically verbatim based on the letters,” Arterton begins. “Then she wrote the screenplay and there were still huge fragments of letters in there, but actually we sort of broke it down a little bit, mixed them up and worked it more into dialogue. The script is very heightened I think. One of the challenges that scared me about it—and made me want to try to do it—was that it read like a play on film It almost reads like verse… I think that there was this degree with which you had to surrender to it. When you do Shakespeare and [wonder if] Lady Macbeth just comes up with that concept on the spot, you must accept it as an actor in order for your audience to have a chance of accepting that. It was sort of like the accents that we committed to doing. They really did sound and speak like that, but it’s very heightened.”
“I remember one day we were [saying that] this is hard stuff to get your mouth around, even just speaking it, let alone filling it with life and truth,” she continues. “It’s muscular and I loved that. Also, they used their words. I mean, these are two writers. They used their words as weapons, as tools and there’s this one scene where Vita is trying to impress Virginia, and the moment is so gross. I think just speak normally and she might listen to you. You just think, ‘Come on,’ but that’s what they did in their writing.”
Interestingly, for their time, both Vita and Virginia were viewed as incredibly progessive in their views on modern feminism and gender roles. For instance, at one key moment within the film, Virginia is confronted by her husband’s outdated opinion on a woman’s position within the home. According to Arterton and Debicki, this instance reveals the limitations placed on her gender during the time, which Virginia refers to as ‘damaging absolutes’
“He says talking about what the woman needs to do in order to create a successful marriage,” she says, “and the woman should surrender her opportunities and that will then you must be passive and actually you don’t have to be any of those things. You can be all of those. You can be whatever you want and still be feminine, if you would like to label yourself in that way… [Right before that, he said that] the man is the plant. The woman is the soil, which is ultimately means that the woman is there support the man and to nourish the beautiful, great thing that goes out in the world. The woman is just this underneath thing, It doesn’t get any of the glory. No sun. No fun.”
“Damaging absolutes [are] a really interesting concept to pick up on, I think,” Debicki replies. “What I love about these two women, among many things, is that they were so incredibly progressive. They actually didn’t label themselves [neither for] their sexuality, their creative endeavors [nor] how they viewed their marriages. Their husbands didn’t label them or try to box them. They were really progressive… The fact that they [were] publicly together was scandalous. Not only that, it was illegal. To this day, people in the limelight creatively who decide to openly be open about their relationship can suffer from that because people would like them to be absolutely one thing and human beings aren’t. But actually, we often try very hard often to be in order to please people or at least know where to put us.”
Similarly, this view also provided a space where Arterton could connect with her character insofar as she too despises being placed in any sort of specific ‘box’.
“Also, I think that’s the thing that people like to be able to play someone somewhere,” Arterton echoes. “I always get so frustrated as an actor because I think, “No, I’m not that thing that you think I am” That’s why I think we go for these roles. They’re like always very, very different and scary to kind of break out of those things and Vita and Virginia just lived there. They did what they wanted. Vita would go out dressed as a man around London, like the acting game where you pretend to be Irish for the day and go into a shop, but as a man. [laughs]”
Despite the film’s period setting, the film has a definitively modern tone. For Arterton, this youthful vibrance within the piece was deliberate in order to separate it from other more traditional period films.
“We were aware of the period obviously with wardrobe set and… what was happening at that time, but I think sometimes period dramas can feel quite sort of stiff and inaccessible,” she claims. “We wanted this to feel young and I think it does achieve that. I wanted it, we wanted it. It’s made by young women and we wanted it to [reach all the people] that have never read Virginia Woolf or Orlando. We want you to feel inspired to read it after seeing this film. If these people lived now, they’d be like the leading art. They’d be like the kind of crazy punk out there, breaking free. We wanted to show that.”
“Well, I think that people can find Virginia Woolf’s work intimidating because of its density or enclosed but it’s not true,” Debicki argues. “Her work actually opens up to you or is so fluid and so accessible. I think that people could [feel that way about any writer, like] Shakespeare and Chekhov. It’s very easy to form ideas about things you don’t know about. So I mean if this film inspires young women to actually pick up To The Lighthouse and [read it], then that’s a beautiful thing. I just think you can learn so much from her work.”
Vita and Virginia played at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.