Saturday, September 08, 2018

#tiff18 review: Vita & Virginia

Arterton and Debicki shooting Chanya Button's Vita & Virginia
I was a student in my late teens in the early 1980s when I first came to know the novels of Virginia Woolf. Over my undergraduate years, I would eventually specialize in all of Woolf's writing, though more through a creative obsession than formal academic discipline. While studying at McGill, I once interviewed Nigel Nicolson (Vita's son) for a literary journal and striking up a kind of friendship, visited him in 1988 at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, Vita and Harold's long-time home they made together. I stayed there as a guest, and during that time Nigel enjoyed playing games with how much I knew, once standing with a copy of printed poems of Vita's with the title concealed and telling me I could have it if I could name what it was. I spoke my guess, and he handed it to me in a kind of delight.

Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins in Atkins' play
Vita & Virginia. 
None of this makes me an expert, but it certainly adds to my appreciation for Chanya Button's beautifully crafted adaptation of the deep love and some time romance between the great Bloomsbury writer Virginia Woolf, arguably the foremost literary voice of feminism in the early twentieth century (though she would have hated any label), and Vita Sackville-West, a poet, novelist and eminent gardener. The relationship between the two women has preoccupied many. There is Edna O'Brien's play Virginia in which Vita appears, and there is Eileen Atkins' play, also called Vita & Virginia. Atkins co-wrote this screenplay with Button and the film may owe a lot of its depth to the years of work she has spent on the relationship. I saw Atkins perform in her own play as Virginia on Broadway, with Vanessa Redgrave as Vita -- and that was in the 90s. While I can hear the play in the screenplay, it is also re-invented and different: in some ways the film is more distilled than the play was. The addition of locations and camera language absorbing faces and contexts liberates the relationship from its literary cage and also forces it into a kind of kaleidoscope viewer. The biographical lens is longer but turns in beautiful colours and shapes, with sharp bold edges.

Those edges are defined from the start by wonderful performances. When Elizabeth Debicki's Virginia is first introduced to us -- a much more bold and taciturn version than the Nicole Kidman incarnation in The Hours -- she is sitting at her writing table working and listening to a radio interview between Vita and husband Harold Nicolson (diplomat and writer) as they debate what makes a good marriage. Both women are therefore seen immediately in their element. Woolf is seen in her best self: writing without illness or affliction. Sackville-West is speaking from her deep independent spirit. Best selves are of course not always possible: the headaches that led to episodes of psychosis and delusion in Virginia are given wonderful visual life in this film through momentary powerful and unobtrusive use of effects. In that opening sequence, Harold Nicolson describes marriage as being analogous to a plant that is nurtured by love, and Vita wonders aloud, disparagingly, if he is implying a trope that a wife is the 'soil'. Later Virginia will walk into the room where her own husband Leonard is reading her novel Mrs. Dalloway, and in her fear and exposure waiting for his verdict she has a vision of an unbridled plant unfolding and creeping along the ground between them. In this way, the moments of struggle are not portrayed as a weakness or 'madness' but as a constant challenge and manifestation of the way in which Virginia reflected on all images, sounds and ideas in her orbit.

At the same time, Vita's striding elegance is commanding and viscerally powerful. The casting reverses their physical size (Vita was very tall and thickly built while Virginia was much smaller) and also presents Vita as more Mayfair than she was -- she was an aristocrat but she was too tall and awkward to have real glamour. Her power came from her unabashed assertiveness of inner formidable strength. One moment missing from the film is Virginia's own naming of the moment she fell in love with Vita, watching her order fish in a fishmonger's in Kent, solid, beautiful and in full control of her aristocratic demeanour but not glamourous; she describes Vita's bearing in that moment instead as being like a Spanish galleon on the high seas. In this film version Debicki towers over Gemma Arterton's Vita, but it doesn't matter. In every other way Arterton captures Vita's heart beautifully, and the film rightly focuses instead on who they were. In a way Debicki's height helps to emphasize Woolf's claim that Vita taught her how to believe in her own strength.

Vita; Virginia and Vita; Virginia
I once interviewed filmmaker Anthony Minghella in which he said that adaptations must always have some compression and reinvention. In this storytelling, many years have been compressed inside the primary years of mutual influence among the women, which technically was 1922-28, but which in the film includes events or contexts that were in truth well into the 1930s. Victoria Glendinning has enumerated in detail Vita's many love affairs of this period, and scholars like Louise De Salvo have tried to break down and calculate the sexuality of Virginia. There are wide-ranging opinions of whether they were lovers or not, and for how long, and how often. Such detailed listing misses the point: they were profoundly influential to each other; they loved each other body and soul but that love was always at odds within their lives, married as they both were to men whom they also loved and who, despite the professed desire of both men for them to have independence, in the end often put strong constraints on the women. Their love survived numerous separations and gaps of connection and visit. When Virginia finally killed herself in 1941, Vita was devastated. Nigel Nicolson himself drew my attention to the fact that Vita locked herself up in the tower at Sissinghurst and spent two years writing spiritual biographies of the saints. Even though their physical relationship had been ended for more than a dozen years, there was no question in her letters to Harold and to others that Virginia had owned a corner of Vita's heart uniquely her own. When I visited Vita's writing room at Sissinghurst, there were three portraits left on her writing table: a drawing of Emily Bronte, a photo of Harold and a photo of Virginia.

Cathryn Harris playing Violet Trefusis and Janet McTeer playing
Vita in the BBC's 1990 series Portrait of a Marriage
The film opens with a lot of talk about Vita's previous relationship with Violet Trefusis, a socialite who believed herself to be an illegitimate child of royalty and who so captured Vita's heart that they went away together for an extended period in the late 1910s, not long after Nigel was born. It was a kind of existential lived-out fantasy, but also extremely real. Nigel Nicolson wrote about it in his book Portrait of a Marriage which is in turn based on an extended diary of Vita's recounting that affair. Button's film minimizes this passion, perhaps to allow Virginia more impact on Vita and it is perhaps a bit unfair: Violet was unmistakably the great passion of Vita's life to that point, and was based on an entire life time of knowing her. It was not just an extravagant fling. At the same time, however, it did not really have any depth. In the BBC mini-series of the 90s, which was an adaptation of Portrait of a Marriage, and in which Vita is played by Janet McTeer, there are at least three hour-long episodes that outline how deeply connected the two women were.

Atkins, now joined by Penelope Wilton as Vita
Yet, what Vita and Violet did not have and which Vita and Virginia had in spades was an intellectual and spiritual appreciation for who the other was, at her deepest heart. They understood each other in ways that eluded the rest of the world. And it has taken a half-century of scholarship mostly by women to unravel this truth. So it makes sense that a twenty-first century young female filmmaker would find her own way of diving in and bringing out this truth. In scholarship, there was always the presumed contextual points of view of the first men who chronicled the women's lives: Harold's diaries; Leonard's diaries, the biography of Woolf by Clive Bell, the biography of his parents' marriage by Nigel Nicolson. This is one of the very real achievements of the film: it bursts free of the male gaze on this relationship and completely captures the essence of its complexity. I still can't quite absorb how well it does so. Although the two women characters say often during their extended early romance that they cannot quite understand the other, the net effect is one of blindness: they see each other so truly that they doubt they have seen at all. When Vita accuses Virginia of treating everything in her life as 'copy' for her writing, she says it plainly without meaning any deep insight or insult. But Virginia is staggered by it, because its deeper truth feels to her on the surface like something that should not be true. At the end of the film, in a beautiful scene in which they are effectively laying the romance to rest, Virginia now unwraps Vita's character, lovingly, and with full acceptance of her many contradictions.

As the two women, Arterton and Debicki (almost unbelievably) nail it. As deeply as I respected Kidman's portrait of Woolf, it never quite jived with the jocular, robustly witty and even (at times) sparkling Virginia of the letters. Virginia's letters have been called (by Nigel Nicolson) among the very best of her writing and he's right. In the film, a measure of deep credibility is Vita's mentioning her love of Virginia's essays -- so lovely that fact is in. The essays, like the letters,  vibrate that deeper intellect that Vita adored. Debicki's characterization embodies the frailness of Virginia in a completely unusual way: the inconfidence, uncertainty about her own work becomes the place of greatest vulnerability. Her capacity to engage others and also hide away from them is beautifully balanced here, and I was moved quite frankly to tears by how well that very painful balancing act on Woolf's part was brought to life. Gemma Arterton, whom I so deeply enjoyed in Lone Scherfig's Their Finest for her capacity to bring an urgent desire for independence to an otherwise passive female character, here shows her capacity for range. As Vita, she goes from idolizing the Bloomsbury crowd to becoming somewhat captive to their artistic caprices. Arterton's range is most vivid in a scene where Vita is posing effectively as herself at Charleston, Vanessa Bell's home, while Woolf and her sister orchestrate a perfect picture of her, who will be fictionalized with as much of the truth as possible in Woolf's Orlando. In this scene, the agency has been upended and art has won: Woolf stands behind the camera in full command of her vision, while Vita is rendered helpless and objectified by her lover's gaze. It was a view/angle I had not considered before but it resonates. I also loved Arterton's wonderful nuancing of emotion in the final scene between them, still in more love than she had realized or taught herself to believe and also in wonder at Woolf's insightful understanding. That scene is one for the ages: for performance, for the beautiful lighting and cinematography, for the filmmaker's instinct not to get too close with the camera so that the two of them are always in frame together.

As the film rightly portrays, it would take the novel Orlando to bring Woolf to this place of strength. Vita's sexual appetite moved her on from Virginia to other relationships and Orlando brought her squarely back. Beneath both of these possessions is a deep and cherished admiration for each other's gifts. This is not new territory for director Chanya Button, whose 2015 film Burn, Burn, Burn was a testament to the enduring friendship of two women. In Vita & Virginia, as a writer and a director, Button favours medium and wider shots over more intimate close-ups, allowing us an equality and distance that always keeps in mind the women's contexts. The love scenes feel almost detached, while clearly the result of their mutual hypnosis. These prerogatives of direction felt like wise and right choices to me, dreading as I was, a more lurid kind of depiction. Vita and Virginia loved the gifted other, the brilliant soul. "I have a million things not so much to say, as to sink into you," Virginia once wrote to Vita. And we can be grateful that now at least a hundred of those things have been sunk into us.