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.