(St. Louis, Missouri Film Festival, April 28th, 2019, Landmark Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Boulevard St. Louis, MO 63130, 5.30 pm)
"Vita & Virginia"
"Vita & Virginia" details the intimate relationship between author Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and socialite, Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton), which was to become the inspiration for Woolf’s Modernist novel, 'Orlando: A Biography'.
The affair and the friendship between literary trailblazer Virginia Woolf, and the enigmatic aristocrat Vita Sackville-West, both uncompromising in their insistence to live, love, and create to the fullest, constitutes one of the most fascinating and passionate relationships in literary history. The film tells the story of the birth of the novel their intoxicating encounters inspired; Woolf’s bold experiment in art and androgyny, ‘Orlando’. The year is 1922. Though happily married, Vita is as notorious for her dalliances with women and subversive attitudes toward gender as she's famous for her aristocratic pedigree and writerly success. Virginia a celebrated writer, publisher, and member of 'The Bloomsbury Group', already revolutionising literature. When Vita receives an invitation to 'Bloomsbury', she's elated at the thought of meeting the enigmatic Woolf. When their paths cross, the magnetic Vita decides the beguiling, stubborn and gifted Virginia will be her next conquest, no matter the cost. Between the concern of their husbands, families, and mutual friends, their romance is bound to be tumultuous. The film is a celebration of their unconventional bond; a vivid exploration of gender, sexuality, creativity and passion. Yet tumult can fuel creativity, Vita's singular persona will eventually be channelled into one of Virginia's greatest works, ‘Orlando'.
The idiosyncratic worlds of artists and aristocracy collide in "Vita & Virginia", which brings into focus the years of friendship, sex, love and letter writing between two literary powerhouses. Vita Sackville-West is introduced to 'The Effervescent Bloomsbury Set', at the heart of which is Virginia Woolf. Their refusal to play by society’s rules offers an enticing escape to socialite and author Vita, who's no stranger to rule-breaking herself. She's constantly chastised by her overbearing and dismissive mother, Lady Sackville-West (Isabella Rossellini) and resents the duties she must undertake for her bisexual, MP husband, Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones). Vita is drawn to the progressive and sexually liberated group of artists, politicians and authors, intrigued particularly by the mystery and apparent aloofness of Virginia. Having a long-held and deep contempt for the upper classes, Leonard Woolf (Peter Ferdinando) is suspicious of this socialite’s sudden appearance in their lives but Virginia persuades him that their publishing house, 'Hogarth Press', should publish Vita’s next book. Something more than a working relationship blooms between the two women; although each writer holds the other in high regard and they're celebrated in their own right, they crave a particular acceptance from each other.
Their mutual admiration, though fast becoming charged with a tension and a passion which excites them both, is peppered with doubts. Their backgrounds and sensibilities are so far apart on the social spectrum that their relationship and even friendship seems doomed. A brief but significant visit to Vita’s ancestral home marks their inescapable differences in Virginia’s mind and it reignites her fear that she cannot love others in the same way as they do her. Vita and Harold’s marriage of convenience threatens to crumble as she becomes frustrated and suffocated by the role of submissive and dutiful wife, distracted by the exciting opportunities that being Virginia’s lover offers. There's always a sense that Vita is desperate to lift the curtain on the real Virginia, to reveal the truth behind the myth and Virginia relishes the challenge, even if she's not always entirely comfortable with it. Their relationship oscillates, they circle around each other and there are constant contradictions between what's said and what's meant. It's when they're separated by Harold’s diplomatic responsibilities that the truth pours out. Their letters are infused with a fierce love and longing, a desperation to explore and analyse the heart and the mind; this is where they're most comfortable, each a muse for the other.
Vita is a real conundrum, she has a public persona, she has a huge character, very fun-loving, insatiable in all aspects of life but also deeply private and shy. There are always two things going on, which are completely contradictory. She's very loving and caring but could be brutal and cold, altogether a fascinating person. Going into Virginia feels like falling down a rabbit hole. It’s a fascinating abyss, one can really never know her and yet it feels like getting to read her work in a different way to many other people. A lot of the dialogue is taken directly from the letters they wrote, which is hard to naturalise because letter writing is very considered. Vita is fun and cavalier, she comes from a different world and Virginia is somebody who's fascinated by people. She's always trying to absorb things from life and when she recognised that there's something in someone that she could learn from, that she hasn't perhaps accessed before, she's drawn to it. We've to remind ourselves that these people are wordsmith how they spoke. The film is trying to honour the cerebral landscape of these women but also give you something very physical and raw and human, and so much of their story is so physical.
Many films focuses on iconic geniuses. First of all, they’re usually men and second of all, it's not interesting to just watch an intelligent person be clever. Over the course of the film, we climb inside Virginia’s mind, particularly when she’s feeling inspired by Vita and certain emotions are woken up. We've these surreal, visual, magical realism trips that suggest what it might be like to see the world through her eyes, which rips it out of the genre of period drama fairly conclusively, it’s become genreless in a way. These two women had extraordinary lives, the scope is enormous. The film is a snapshot of the more intense part of Vita and Virginia’s relationship. It’s also about Virginia connecting to her sexuality, her body and her relationship with sex; that’s something that Vita really gives her. Virginia Woolf is someone who we associate with fragility, if people can be relied on one thing to know about her, it’s the fact that she committed suicide and the fact she struggled her whole life with a spectrum of emotional and psychological challenges. What the film captures and crystallizes is a moment of profound strength, which is Virginia using her amazing intellect to digest and overcome an experience which everyone thinks will overwhelm her. The film tells the story of the moment in which she uses her ability to write and create great work as a way of moving on from a crisis that Vita brings about. It's not a biopic in that sense, we’re looking at a very specific moment, a moment of great strength from a woman who we may otherwise associate with vulnerability.
Vita’s world represents castles and grand places, opulence and decadence whereas 'The Bloomsbury Group' side is muted and feels worn and lived-in. 'The Hogarth Press' set is completely ‘wow’, you didn’t know where the set ended. We've these meandering corridors that keep going, you feel like you're in an underground den where all these anarchic ideas are happening! There’s a real contrast in the film because Vita and Virginia are so different, the design is very impressive. In terms of Vita’s costumes, the film wants to get across that she's a trendsetter, she's daring for her time and dressed androgynously. She's very rich so she could spend a lot of money on clothes and is also very well travelled, so the film incorporates some of 'The Middle East' in her costumes. Wev a lot of punk references, David Bowie is a big influence on the film, specifically that androgynous style that he played around with. When you think of the 1920s, you think of flapper girls etc., but the film has a lot more fun not being completely strict to the period. David Bowie meets Keith Richards meets Louise Brooks! Virginia has a more soft, steady silhouette, she’s less confident in her look but very precise in her aesthetics, it's important to keep that constant. She's fragile which is reflected in the fabrics and softer colours. Virginia is soft, like a pool of water, she swims around in blues and cooler colours, which is such a contrast from Vita who wants to dictate so strongly the shape that she carves out in the world as a woman, she looks so different in every scene whereas Virginia looks almost the same throughout. Of course you've to study the real life people but because the actors don’t necessarily look like them, the film moves away from that image. So instead of trying to replicate them, we find the essence of the real people and then go our own way.
Recreating 'Charleston House', where 'The Bloomsbury Group' were based, has been a very special thing to do, it’s a world that's created by a bunch of punk artists who wanted to live their own kind of life. It's an iconic place, which is in itself a work of art, is a metaphor for the fact that this film is about a community of characters who designed their lives to serve their passions and their interests and to be free. 'The Hogarth Press' set has this ‘tunnel’ feel to it and at the end of it, is Virginia’s door, it feels very much like the energy is going down the hall into this room where she would be creating. It feels that the flow of energy seemed to come to and from the room. The set itself is underneath this great manor house and it's quite dark and damp, the exact contrast of Vita’s world, so it feels quite right that the light and the colours of the world of the Woolfs contrasted so hugely from the airiness and breeziness of 'The Nicholsons’. What Virginia is doing with 'Hogarth Press' is quite radical and the film depicts that by bringing it into this basement, somewhere underground, not gritty but essentially a working, buzzing environment. The film takes some inspiration from 'The Prohibition Era' in America.
Based on Sackville-West and Woolf's personal correspondence and co-scripted by distinguished stage and screen veteran 'Eileen Atkins', "Vita & Virginia" is bold, sensuous, and smart, and will make you swoon. It's a love story, told in a contemporary style, about two women, two writers, who smashed through social barriers to find solace in their forbidden connection. "Vita & Virginia" offers a glimpse into the complex nature of relationships and marriages, questioning what it's to be female and feminine and details the fraught hypocrisies of living in the 1920s. Punctuating the film is Virginia’s well publicised mania, depicted through visual, imaginative metaphors, a reminder of her vulnerability that Vita is eager to dispel. Throughout the story, characters struggle with the unwritten rules of jealousy, revolution, power and the myriad forms that love takes. It's from one such struggle, after Virginia sees Vita with another woman, that 'Orlando: A Biography' is born, canonising Vita forever as Virginia’s muse.
"Vita & Virginia stand out from other period dramas because the characters, such as 'The Bloomsbury Group' are so cutting edge for the time. They're pioneers and breaking down a lot of barriers. The 1920s was a time of shaking free of 'The Victorian Era' and the focus is on the people doing just that. The film feels young and fresh. The casting is quite young. This is never going to feel like a sleepy period drama. It should feel incidental that it’s set in 1927, it feels contemporary and punk and edgy. The world that 'The Bloomsbury Group' built for themselves was liberal and progressive, that’s what has dictated the vision for this film. Vita and Virginia’s relationship was light years ahead of it's time so the film doesn't want to be stuck in the past. The script is very bold and unique in the way that it tackles Vita and Virginia’s relationship. It’s intelligent and sharp, the incorporation of their literary canon with the letters and how they speak to each other, it’s an honouring of their work but it brings them into a human realm, and at the centre of it's this love story which is really poignant.