Portrait of a Marriage (1990)

“I’m sure the secret of any relationship is to treat disasters like incidents.”

Based on the book by Vita Sackville-West’s son Nigel Nicholson, the BBC film Portrait of a Marriage is an intimate look at the unusual relationship Vita shared with her husband, Harold Nicholson. The film begins in WWII and then goes back in time to 1913 when Harold (David Haig) courted young Vita (Janet McTeer). There are some awkward moments of physical contact, the marriage occurs, and within a few years Vita and Harold have two sons. Harold’s work in the foreign office keeps him in London a great deal of the time and Vita occupies herself with her sons, gardening and writing. Troubles appear in the Nicholsons’ marriage, however, when Harold returns home and confesses he has a case of venereal disease–and Vita is shocked to learn that this was contracted through Harold’s sexual relationships with other men.

On the surface of things, the Nicholsons’ marriage seems to continue as before, but Vita turns to her childhood friend, Violet Keppel (Cathryn Harrison). The two women begin an explosive tempestuous affair that confounds Vita’s family, and the main problem both Vita’s mother (Diana Fairfax) and Harold have with the affair seems to be Vita’s total lack of discretion. But Vita refuses to temper her relationship with Violet, and together they escape and continue their affair on the continent.

Just how Harold and later Violet’s husband Denys Trebusis (Peter Birch) cope with the affair is the focus of this film. All those involved pass blame around, and Vita’s relationship with Violet is alternately seen as a result of Harold’s neglect, Harold’s ineffectualness, and also as Violet’s bad influence. At several key points, both husbands even attempt to assimilate themselves into the women’s relationship, but this too fails abysmally. The film emphasizes the strong bond enjoyed between Harold and Vita–although there a few scenes that question whether this bond is, in reality, a social comfort zone for the Nicholsons.

Portrait of a Marriage is high drama–many of the scenes are explosive and echo the passionate, melodramatic affair. The film shows the seeds of the affair that occurred in Vita and Violet’s childhood, and also shows how those closest to Vita remain at a loss to understand her actions. To Harold, who had numerous discreet relationships of his own, Vita’s relationship with Violet is a sort of madness–an extended “schoolgirl fantasy.” This is a time when marriage was seen as the only way a woman could achieve any sort of freedom in society, but as Vita’s mother points out, “it’s as well to make sure you have a sympathetic husband.” And both Harold and Denys were sympathetic–but only to a point….

Vita Sackville-West’s other relationships with women–including her long-term relationship with Virginia Woolf–are not examined in the film. Instead the film’s focus is strictly on Vita’s tumultuous–sometimes violent–relationship with Violet. Included in the film are shots of Knoles–Sackville-West’s ancestral home. Directed by Stephen Whittaker.


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