Scandalous Women on Film: Portrait of a Marriage (1990)

Last night I sat down to watch the BBC Drama PORTRAIT OF A MARRIAGE starring David Haig as Harold Nicolson, Janet McTeer as Vita Sackville-West, and Cathryn Harrison (granddaughter of Rex Harrison) as Violet Trefusis.  The miniseries is based on Nigel Nicolson's biography of his parents, which also includes the diary that Vita kept at the time of her affair with Violet.  At the time the book came out, which was after the deaths of all the parties in question, Nicolson was chastized for raking over the coals of a long forgotten affair.  But Vita had wanted her diary to be published, and dutiful son that he was, Nigel saw to it.

I have written about Violet previousl on the blog and I revisited her story for SCANDALOUS WOMEN (March 2011), so it was only natural that I should want to watch the film.  I had seen it once before when it was first shown on Masterpiece Theater long before I knew anything about Violet.  I had known about Vita's later relationship with Virginia Woolf, but her relationship with Violet was a revelation.

The film opens during World War II. Vita is working in the garden with Harold, when she receives a phone call. We only hear her end of the phone conversation but it is clear that the person on the other end of the ine is stirring up powerful emotions.  As she clutches the phone, Vita flashes back to her earlier self.  We hear the childish voice of a young girl announcing that the ring that Vita wears is from a Ventian doge.  We see scenes of a young Harold and Vita courting.  Vita mentions a friend, Violet Keppel who Harold turns up his nose. Vita tells him not to be jealous, he assures her that he is not. Next Vita and her mother Victoria discuss Vita's parents marriage. It is a remarkably frank conversation between a mother and a daughter. Victoria confides that Lionel, Vita's father, was insaitiable in the boudoir but Vita's difficult birth meant that Victoria shut her door to her husband.  Next we see Harold confess to Vita that he has picked up a veneral disease but not from a prostitute from another man. While Vita is processing this new information, Violet Keppel comes to stay for a visit. It is World War I, in fact the year was 1918. Vita, with her hair won short and wearing pants, takes Violet tramping over the estate. That  night Violet confesses her feelings to Vita which are reciprocated.  The affair is off and running.

It is an affair that almost costs Vita her marriage to Harold.  While Harold is willing to be indulgent, he is not willing to be made a laughingstock or to lose Vita.  All throughout the film the audience is shown the strength of their marriage, how much they depend on each other.  At one point, when Violet asks Vita why she married Harold, Vita confesses that if it had been the other way around, if she had been the man and Harold the woman, she would have still have married him. Vita and Harold are best friends, they encourage each other,  they both love their two sons and the life they have made in the country at Long Barn.   The only thing missing is passion which Vita feels for Violet.  It is a passion that is all consuming, Vita and Violet go off to the continent together and end up staying four months. Vita even misses Christmas with her family. The two women, Vita dressed like a man, go dancing together out in pubic.  They are clearly intoxicated with each other, something that Harold and her mother don't understand.  The only person that Harold feels passionate about is Vita, his affairs with men he calls little diversions, they don't take away from his love for Vita.

But the relationship with Violet threatens the Nicolson marriage.  Janet McTeer, who is always phenomenal, is brilliant at suggesting a woman who is torn between a conventional life with husband and family, and a wildly unconventional one with Violet. David Haig portrays Harold as sweet but befuddled.  When he tries to forbid Vita to go away with Violet, he looks like a small child having a trantrum. He's trying to be the forceful man that his mother-in-law insists that he be, but it sits ill on him.  He refers to his rival as that 'swine Violet' the same epithet no doubt he would have used for a man.  Because the story is told from the Nicolson's POV, Violet is treated as the wanton seductress luring Vita to her doom.  On Violet's part, she fell in love with Vita as a child,and never fell out of love.  It means that we see Diana Fairfax playing the forceful, cosmopolitan Victoria, the glamorous, domineering woman that Vita could never live up to, we don't see Mrs. Keppel, her counterpart.  One of the things that drew Vita and Violet together was that they had similar mothers. Cathryn Harrison clearly inherited the talent of her grandfather.  She portrays Violet as seductive, needy, obsessive, and cruel.  There is a reason that Violet is one letter short of violent.

Poor Peter Birch who plays Denys Trefusis.  He just gets to suffer and be clueless just like the real Denys. I wish that the writer Penelope Mortimer had developed the relationship between Vita and Denys more.  Towards the end of the miniseries, Vita and Violet flee to Amiens, they are finally going to off together.  On the way there, Vita and Denys share the boat across the channel and end up really getting to know each other, to the point that Vita began to feel sorry for the way they were hurting Denys.  The climax of the film is filled with drama. Harold Nicolson finally arouses himself to drag his wife back to London.  He uses the information that he receives from his mother-in-law, that Denys had told her that his marriage to Violet was not platonic after all.  He uses this information to get Vita to leave Violet. The film ends with an elderly Harold returning the Venetian doge's ring to Violet after Vita's death, telling her of the fifty happy years that they spent together (sort of turning the knife in the wound).

The viewer is not told that Vita and Violet did meet during World War II briefly although they never resumed their relationship or that Violet and Denys settled in Paris.  The film is a remarkable portrait of a marriage that seemed conventional on the surface but turned out to be decidedly unconventional.  The bond between Harold and Vita turned out to be stronger than any love affair ever could be. I turned off the TV feeling rather sad. On the one hand, I was happy for Vita and Harold that they had found an arrangement that worked for them but on the other hand, I felt sorry for Vita and Violet. They loved each other passionately, so much that it blinded them to the cost of their love.

Verdict:  A vivid and compassionate depiction of the passionate and obsessive love affair between Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis, as well as the long and loving marriage of Vita and Harold Nicolson.


The book "Portrait of a Marriage" is a really honest, moving story about the uncommon marriage between Harold Nicholson and Vita Sackville-West. I reccommend it. The letters that Virgina Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West are also wonderful! I stumbled across your blog when you wrote about Louisa May Alcott and I'm awfully glad, you are a fabulous writer.

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