August 30, 2019 at 12:12 pm PST | by David Ehrenstein
Vita and Virginia go boating

Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki in Vita & Virginia (2018)

When it was published in 1928, Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” became an immediate success with readers both high and low.

A historical fantasy about a youth born in the era of Queen Elizabeth I who becomes a woman along the course of his/her four hundred year (and still counting) lifespan, this tale (cleverly subtitled “a biography”) deals in a very playful and entertaining way with what we refer to today as “gender fluidity” while wittily wisecracking about English history.

At the time of its first appearance “Orlando” was taken to be a kind of sophisticated “put on” — a jape in which Woolf had as the French say “allé faire du bateau” (“Gone Boating”). But beneath its bright and lively surface is a more serious and very personal story about it’s author, Virginia Woolf, and her most significant lover Vita-Sackville West. “Vit and Virginia” deals with this couple, their relationship and how “Orlando” memorialized it.

Directed by Chanya Button from a screenplay written by noted actress Eileen Atkins, and starring Gemma Arterton and Elizabeth Debicki “Vita and Virginia” is markedly different from Sally Potter’s lighter-than-air 1992 film adaptation of “Orlando” starring the great Tilda Swinton, in the role she was born to play.

Button’s film — by exceedingly sharp contrast — is a very sober, almost melancholy love story. There’s little joy between this lesbian couple. Virginia appears quite bossy and Vita markedly brow-beaten into compliance with her lover’s demands.

Interestingly, the film’s main action deals not with how the two came together but rather with the photographic material Woolf created for the book, pictures of Vita dressed as “Orlando” at different periods of his/her life. Conventional biographies would include pictures of its subject. But “Orlando” was a fantasy about someone who never lived outside the mind of his creator.

Vita Sackville-West was herself a writer. But her work is little known today save by those whose creative specialty is “the Bloomsbury Group,” that convocation of writers, scientists, and aesthetes (John Maynard Keynes,, E.M. Forster, Lytton Stratchey, Leonora Carrington, Clive Bell, Duncan Grant) some of whom were queer. That their often quite wild “Personal lives”unfurled in the shadow of Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment and disgrace may seem startling at first. But these were very upper class, well-connected and wealthy people whose “peccadilloes” didn’t really become known until well after their deaths. To put not too fine a point on it after many years of (cough)”speculation,” (cough), when “Portrait of a Marriage on” a “tell-all’ deluxe by Nigel Nicolson ( the somewhat surprising offspring of Harold and Vita) astonished some.

In the immortal words of Gore Vidal, “Harold Nicholson was a relentless chaser of Guardsman and Vita Sackville-West of cunt.” This is the condition of people who are not trapped into that middle class economic condition of rightness, the worry of keeping up appearances, the worry that they’re always going to be’ done in’ by somebody.”

In “Vita and Virginia” there is a scene where Harold (Rupert Penry-Jones) is seen climbing out of a bed occupied by a still sleeping guardsman. Our heroines are never seen carrying on in similar fashion. In fact outside of a chaste embrace or two those unfamiliar with the lives of Woolf and Sackville-West might well wonder what the relationship was about at all.

Because of her other writings, particularly her great novel “Mrs. Dalloway,” Virginia Woolf is widely regarded as a sensitive soul. In “The Hours” Nicole Kidman played her as the nicest middle-class woman you’d ever want to meet. But whoever scrawled “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” on the wall of that gay bar from when Edward Albee took the title of his most famous play knew otherwise. And so does Button.

Wicki notes “The two began a sexual and romantic relationship that lasted for a decade, and continued as a friendship long after that. Notably, this inspiration is confirmed by Woolf herself, who noted in her diary the idea of Orlando on 5 October 1927: “And instantly the usual exciting devices enter my mind: a biography beginning in the year 1500 and continuing to the present day, called Orlando: Vita; only with a change about from one sex to the other”.

In short “Orlando” was a kind of literary “memento mori” of an affair that was dead. Hence it is most appropriate that “Vita and Virginia” shows the pair at emotional odds with one another.

It’s not a pretty picture, but it’s a true one, ad same-sex couples who’ve “been there” are sure to be thankful for “Vita and Virgina” as much as the Bloomsbury adepts who’ll be certain to flock to it.

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