Portrait of a Marriage
1990 BBC (DVD)
Based on the book Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West’s son.
From the BBC, Janet McTeer stars as Vita Sackville-West in the classic Masterpiece Theatre drama British aristocrat and writer Vita Sackville-West and diplomat Harold Nicolson married in 1913, and their love endured and deepened over the course of their 50 years together. Each, however, was knowingly and repeatedly unfaithful to the other, Vita most famously with fellow writer Virginia Woolf. But only one affair threatened their union: Vita’s tempestuous liaison with her childhood friend Violet Keppel. This BBC drama is the story of that affair based on the extraordinary literary biography by Nigel Nicolson, Vita and Harold’s son.
Award-winning actress Janet McTeer (Tumbleweeds, Carrington) stars as Vita with David Haig (Two Weeks Notice) as Harold, and Cathryn Harrison (Clarissa) as Violet.
First I’d like to say that I had never heard of Vita Sackville-West, although I’ve read many authors of her era. I have some time to watch some films on my break, so I looked up “lesbian” in my library catalog and this movie came up. So I got it just by chance.
Vita Sackville-West was a complex woman in her time and lived a life full of passion. Since watching the film, which affected me on many visceral levels, I’ve looked her up and her story is fascinating. She was a famous author in her own right and was also a lover of Virginia Woolf briefly after her affair with Violet.
For the purposes of this review, I’m sticking to the movie representation. There are some interesting reviews of the book on Goodreads that go into actual history. There are also accounts by Vita herself and Virginia Woolf of Vita’s affair with Violet, but since I haven’t read those, I can only speak to the movie representation. From what I’ve gleaned though, this movie is a fairly accurate portrayal of her relationship with both Violet and Harold.
The most immediate, visceral reaction I had to this film was--- intense. This story was extremely passionate as portrayed in the film. Vita took me on an emotional roller-coaster that took me to some interesting places and I really didn’t want this story to end. To hang out with a person so consumed by their passion for a few hours is a ride I didn’t want to get off of.
The movie starts out with Vita and Harold in middle age, living what seems a typical upper middle class quiet life in the country. Vita receives a letter from Violet and this affects her to the point of tears, downing several glasses of booze and chain smoking after she runs and locks herself in her room. It’s very clear that this letter has had a painful effect on Vita. The scene then goes back in time with Vita remembering her past starting with her earliest memories of Violet as a child and then on to her marriage to Harold.
The movie then continues on in the past from that point until the end when it comes back to present time.
She’s had two sons and all seems to be the perfect marriage and life, even if Vita wasn’t happy with Harold’s career as a foreign ambassador. It’s very clear though that both she and Harold love each other deeply. The poo hits the fan though when Harold confesses that he’s contracted venereal disease from sex with men. Vita is upset but loves Harold, and doesn’t really freak at this. This though seems to be the impetus to the beginning of her love affair with Violet. But I suspect it’s in the movie only since she did have a love affair with a classmate when she was a teen, which was mentioned later in the film. She did mention Violet though when she and Harold discussed getting married, hinting already at Harold’s dislike of Violet and Vita’s unusual closeness to her.
The story carries on for the next years as Vita and Violet become more and more involved and bold; Vita dressing as a man as they cavort around Paris in alternative clubs and in English bed and breakfasts. During this whole time, Harold still loves her and fights for their marriage and it is clear that Vita and Harold have a bond that cannot be broken even though she’s obsessed with Violet. She won’t leave Harold, really.
The relationship that Vita and Violet have borders on co-dependent at times, to the point where they lose all perspective of their responsibilities. Especially Vita lives a fun life with Violet for months in Paris, missing Christmas at home and selfishly ignoring the fact that she has a husband and children. I think a lot of mothers would have a hard time with this aspect, although I don’t know if IRL she was as cold to her sons as portrayed. Her youngest son wrote her biography and although shocked at a life he never knew about, he held her in the highest regard. So who knows really? But it will be hard for a mother to not hate her for that.
Violet, in this portrayal, cannot live without Vita and seems to have been the one dominated by Vita. Although, she constantly gets on Vita’s case for succumbing to what she thinks is a boring bourgeois life of a middle class housewife with kids, which conflicts Vita internally. Violet marries at the insistence of her mother, but makes a deal with her betrothed that she will only do so if he will not touch her. She comes across as rather selfish as well, callously living as she pleases at the expense of others. But her passion for Vita is unparalleled. It’s the only thing she cares about in life and she would die without her.
What was really fascinating is that both the husbands, at times, go after the two women who try to run away to live together outside of their marriages and lives. There are lots of confrontations and both men seem to be at a loss of how to deal with Vita and Violet. And yet, somehow both men cannot walk away from the women. Particularly Harold. He really does love Vita more than anything and he sticks with her no matter how many women Vita has affairs with. This was something really interesting to me. But then again, Harold was having many affairs with men that both he and Vita accepted while they stayed married.
On many levels, Vita comes across as a really selfish person, which she herself acknowledges. She knows she’s acting selfishly, and yet, she has a fiery nature that she cannot contain. Especially when it comes to Violet, who apparently affected her the most and was the love of her life. However, it was easy to sympathize with her because you can see the internal struggle she goes through. She loves Violet in an obsessive way, and yet, she loves Harold as well. Trying to give reign to both of those conflicting passions drives her insane almost. Harold is the safe harbor for her internal chaos, while Violet is her need to feel alive at all costs.
The acting by Janet McTeer in this film was amazing. She brought Vita to life vividly in all her pain, agony, passion, and love as a woman driven by her emotions. David Haig also did a great job at representing Harold. He easily could have come across as pathetic, but it’s clear that he wasn’t dominated by Vita. Vita’s mother in this movie came across as a tyrant. I don’t know how she was written in the book, but again, from what I’ve gleaned, she had a hold on Vita that Vita couldn’t shake. At any rate, the movie was rich and lush and didn’t hold back or try to romanticize Vita’s life, but portrayed her in a very real and human light.
For those who might be wondering, there are a few sex scenes that were tastefully done and not too graphic. But there is quite a lot of kissing between the characters Vita and Violet. And there was one very intense scene in which Vita, in a rage because Violet has married, rapes Violet. I know that will bother some people, but Janet McTeer did a great job of expressing the all consuming pain Vita is feeling that she would do that. These two women had an extremely tempestuous relationship and that came through in the actor portrayals.
I highly recommend this film. Not only for the realistic portrayal of a famous person, but for the impassioned expression of a woman who openly loved women in a time when it just wasn’t that acceptable.
Heat level- 3- some sexual scenes, but not too graphic.