‘I felt kind of promiscuous’: Gemma Arterton on Vita and Virginia

With director Chanya Button, the star has made an ambitious drama about the passionate Bloomsbury love affair. They talk about female desire and the rise in lesbian romances on screen

Gemma Arterton and Chanya Button are frolicking for the camera in a female-only London club. Behave as if you would normally, orders the photographer. We could cuddle up, quips Arterton, but that would give the wrong impression. She has just rushed up from Chichester, where she is staying with her boyfriend Rory Keenan, while he performs in a play. Its a reminder if any were needed that both women are busy, busy, busy. They have arrived late, creating a comic road-drama of their own as their respective assistants monitored their cars converging from different directions.

Close friends since Button went to drama school with Artertons younger sister, Hannah, they are in London to promote their first professional collaboration, Vita and Virginia. Button is the director, while Arterton not only stars in, but is an executive producer on the film, which documents one of the most famous love affairs of the early 20th century, the one between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West that led to the creation of the gender- and genre-changing novel Orlando.

Based on a 1990s stage play by the actor Dame Eileen Atkins, the film ambitiously marries straight-to-camera monologues from the lovers letters and diaries with special effects straight out of Guillermo del Toro. A pulsing electro-beat powers the louche Bloomsbury party scene, while Woolfs mental and emotional disintegration is signalled by a flock of attacking crows and ivy curling up a lamp-post or thrusting through the floorboards.

Im really aware Vita and Virginia is an arthouse film and that enables you to make stronger choices, because youre not looking for a broad audience, says Button, whose most recent work, on the forthcoming second world war TV series World on Fire, has shown her what a luxury that is. Something Ive returned to very often was the mission statement that Virginia and Leonard Woolf wrote when they started their Hogarth Press: Our object has been to publish at low prices, short works of merit, in prose or poetry, which could not, because of their merits, appeal to a very large public. They broke all the rules and pissed everyone off: they published every great modernist writer we think of as mainstream today.

If the tension between those lofty ideals and the need to make an impact gives the film itself a certain edgy quality, it is also what brings the lovers together in the first place. Artertons Sackville-West is a glittering, hedonistic aristocrat whose literary efforts do nothing to seduce Elizabeth Debickis lofty Virginia until Leonard reminds his wife that they could do with a money-spinner. Dont forget weve got Tom Eliot and Sigmund Freud to sell too.

The point of the music, explains Button, was to find a modern response to how progressive the women were in their own time. We listened to everything they were listening to. She also provided a lengthy reading list that not only included books written by the women themselves but several of the many hundreds written about them. Youve always been such a nerd, Arterton tells her when she gives a particularly knowledgeable answer to a question about literary modernism.

Making an arthouse film enables you to make stronger choices: Vita and Virginia. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

While Button did an English degree at Oxford, and was inspired to go into film by Woolfs 1926 essay, The Cinema, Arterton didnt go to university, beginning her film career fresh out of drama school as the head girl of St Trinians and moving on to play the Bond girl Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace. Being from a working-class background, and tricking my way into the middle-class intelligentsia, I still feel like Im looked down on, she says, not entirely flippantly.

She began her reading with Orlando and followed it up with Mrs Dalloway, which is the subject of a pointed exchange in the film between Vita and a travelling companion as they chug across North Africa on a train. Does anything ever actually happen to Mrs Dalloway? the companion asks. Not really, Vita replies, she just gives a party. Golly, says her friend, Im hooked. Does Arterton herself resonate at all with those sentiments? I didnt study Woolf, she says. I was introduced to her through this project, which is really sad. I wish Id read her in my formative years. But then, she adds brightly, trying the thought on like a debutante modelling a tiara: I feel like the target audience.

The Bloomsbury heritage is one with many gatekeepers and among those to have taken umbrage to the film is Virginia Nicholson, the great-niece of Virginia Woolf, who recently aired her grievances in a newspaper tirade. They ranged from the respective heights of the two actors (Debicki towers over Arterton, whereas, in reality, Vita was the taller of the two), to their dining habits (they would never eat in the kitchen), to the representation of her relative as a mad prodigy, trembling with hypersensitivity when Virginia was actually pretty good fun.

Gemma Arterton: I still feel looked down upon. Photograph: Piccadilly Pictures/Allstar

One could add that, in covering only the few years of the affair, it edits out Vitas major achievement as the gardener who created a new way of making, and writing about, gardens out of her disappointment at being booted out of her ancestral home. But at the time, she was mainly a popular novelist. I think she was desperate for recognition among her peers as a writer, which I dont think she ever really achieved, says Arterton. I read [her 1924 novel] Seducers in Ecuador and its not Mrs Dalloway.

Both director and actor are unrepentant, pointing out that they consulted the various family members at length. If were not allowed to take a view, with all the work weve done and all the detailed conversations weve had, what chance is there for a student in a classroom to have their own response? says Button. I could have made a documentary about her, but I chose to make a film. Art is an opinion and this is art.

The film quotes Woolfs famous words on the writing of Orlando: I can revolutionise biography overnight the story of a hero who turns into a heroine who turns out to be fiction, which is of course what all biographies are. This portrait of a poet who changes sex at 30 and lives for centuries was her tribute to Sackville-West and marked the moment when their passionate love affair cooled into friendship.

Tilda Swinton in Orlando. Photograph: Ronald Grant

At the heart of the project is an attempt to find a 21st-century filmic equivalent to Woolfs early 20th-century stream of consciousness hence the crows and the ivy. Madness: what a convenient way to explain away her genius, says Vita of Virgina. The animations are an attempt to see female creativity and vulnerability through a new lens, explains Button. She was this blend of brilliance and suffering. She writes in her letters about this sense that she is breaking with reality. What weve tried to do is to look at her vulnerability in a new way, because, as a female director, Im extremely interested in the complexities of femininity. So yes, its an attempt to break the rules and create a new language, just like Virginia did when she wrote Orlando.

Its not a coincidence that Tilda Swinton also quoted Woolfs line about the fiction of biography as a key to her own inspiration for Orlando in Sally Potters acclaimed 1992 film of the novel. A more recent interrogation of mythologising biography comes in Sally Wainwrights Gentleman Jack, an eight-part television series about the early 19th-century lesbian Anne Lister. It is the latest in a growing line of lesbian romances that are placing female desire in the mainstream. Is there a significance in the fact that these stories are being told now? I think we are both looking at compelling, driven relationships from a different era through a contemporary lens, and its very important that theres space for both to be told, and that they talk to each other, but theres not a quota for female or LGBTQ-driven stories, says Button.

Suranne Jones as Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack. Photograph: Matt Squire/BBC/Lookout Point/HBO

There is only one sex scene in the film, though it creates an illusion of physical intoxication through the cameras caress of skin. Button and Arterton both bridle at the word sapphic It has a negative spin. Its often used in a scornful way while also being aware that the historical limitations of language work both ways. To describe Vita and Virginia as lesbians would be to ignore the fact that they both had happy marriages. They were bending the institution to their own will, says Arterton, who remains perplexed by the emotional slipperiness of Vita. Even in her letters and her other writings shes very hard to pin down. I think what anchored me was something I connected with at the time of reading the screenplay: I felt kind of promiscuous, and that I couldnt give my heart away. For me, the key was her line: If you leave me adrift, I will hurt you.

For Button, the underlying challenge was how to understand without over-articulating. A conversation I always start is if Virginia Woolf were to write Orlando today, what pronoun would she use? Would it be they? Id love to know what shed do with the grammar and how it would affect her writing. I think she would definitely have explored gender-fluid characters. But it would be wrong to impose a modern perspective on that, just as it would be wrong to use the word bipolar.

Among the early outings for the film was a screening at Flare, the BFIs LGBTQ+ film festival. I was really worried about my mum seeing it and my aunt, who is gay, and all of her friends who are gay, says Arterton. But she neednt have worried. They all came to see it and my mum thought it was really beautiful because you saw these women expressing something, rather than seeing something that was gratuitous. Id be the first person to condemn anything gratuitous: boobs out and that sort of thing. But its important for young people to see something beautiful.

Button says: People so far have said they sort of forget its between two women. Their relationship was with their own sexuality, as much as with each other. She adds: The response I love the most when people have watched the film is when they say: I didnt know anything about them and now I want to find out more.

Vita and Virginia is released in the UK on 5 July.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jun/27/gemma-arterton-vita-and-virginia-bloomsbury

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