Vita and Virginia
Any movie lover can tell you that the Toronto International Film Festival is the place to be. Incredible actors, fascinating movies – it’s a feast for the senses. Now, if you’re me and you love period dramas, you know they’ll have something beautiful for you. There are always a few period dramas making the rounds at the festival, and this year’s big ticket item was Colette. I’m all for a Keira Knightley flick, but when I heard Vita and Virginia would be premiering, the other enticing titles faded into the background. I was ready to lose myself in the classical compositions, the breathtaking cinematography, and a romance that would have me clutching at my heart. I definitely got all of those things, but let me tell you – I was not ready for this.
Vita and Virginia follows the love affair between the independent and effervescent Vita Sackville-West and the mysterious, enigmatic writer Virginia Woolf. Sackville-West is a writer, financially successful, but feeling unsatisfied with her work. Woolf writes masterpiece after masterpiece, but she’s struggling to write a hit. When they meet, Sackville-West is enamored; Woolf is skeptical. An intellectual companionship soon gives way to a passionate romance, but that is the only period drama trope to be found in this genre-breaking film.
Nothing about this was conventional. The music is a mix of modern and classical, occasionally jarring, but always lending to stunning imagery and a fervor so strong that I forgot I wasn’t in the room with these brilliant actors (I mean, I was, because Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki were there in all of their mesmerizing glory – but you get my meaning). It felt like sitting front row at the theatre – the actors so close, their expressions so captivating that I felt swept away by the smallest of gestures. A hand stroking a cheek, the reading of a letter – it all felt urgent and heartbreaking.
Director Chanya Button has done a gorgeous job. The hidden bohemia of Victorian London is brought to life with a skilfully shot vitality. She gives these women tremendous agency, considering their marginalized status and the time in which they lived. Anything that stands in their way is never an issue of gender or sexuality, but a matter of the heart. In a genre that leans heavily on women stifled and oppressed by convention, it was refreshingly modern, a real revelation. Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki bring these women so often forgotten by history to life with such nuance and skill, I am starting to have a hard time separating their performances from the real women who inspired them.
Button came out after the film to a theatre full of dazed and delighted viewers – and said how this is her personal interpretation of the infamous affair between these legendary writers. History and fiction mingle to portray the story she had in her heart. It’s a vision I felt privileged to see, and I hope that others will feel the same.