It’s easy to forget that unhinged, marriage-wrecking, passionate affairs are just as likely to occur among the serene gardens and quiet drawing rooms of the elite class as they are among the rest of us. But the BBC produced Portrait of a Marriage (1990)—now available on DVD for the first time in the U.S.–is a blazing testament to the power of great love (and lust) to upset the balance of even the most artfully planned and lavishly financed lives.
Starring Janet McTeer (Songcatcher, Tumbleweeds) as feminist poet Vita Sackville-West and Cathryn Harrison (The Dresser) as Violet Keppel Trefusis, Portrait details the tumultuous lifelong love affair between the two women and its impact on both of their marriages to men, set against the backdrop of World War II-era England.
Early in the film we see teenaged Vita dressed in drag and in pursuit of a coyly feminine Violet, establishing the rules of a cat and mouse game that will continue for decades to come. Then we flash forward years later to Vita’s country manor as Violet arrives for a visit. Violet is dismayed to find her gallant, heroic Vita ensconced in a cozy marriage to diplomat Harold Nicolson (smartly played by David Haig), her wild spirit seemingly tamed by her roles as wife and mother.
Harrison’s Violet is an intoxicating, flirtatious idealist. She sees the art and the artist in Vita, and is convinced that their chemistry together is the elixir that can truly set Vita free. Violet is the ultimate romantic, in love with love and relentless in her pursuit of the one woman who will not fully commit to her.
McTeer plays Vita with delicious complexity. It’s clear that this wealthy, spirited woman is no prisoner in her own home. She loves her husband, and values him as a great companion. When Harold tells Vita of his sexual dalliances with men, his disclosure opens the door for her to rekindle her relationship with Violet—not out of revenge, but out of a desire for equal freedom to explore her own same-sex desires.
The bisexual spouses share a rare bond of understanding and affection, and it is this connection that haunts Vita when she contemplates running away with Violet for good.
McTeer and Harrison attack their roles as obsessively possessive lovers with gusto. McTeer’s Vita undergoes a palpable transformation when she leaves behind her life with Harold to globe-trot with Violet. She stands taller, speaks more forcefully, has fits of jealous rage and practically devours her secret lover.
Harrison plays Violet as an unapologetically decadent and self-serving aristocrat, but one whose character is redeemed by her uncanny insight into Vita’s nature and her utter devotion to her childhood love. Based on the strength of the performances by the lead actors, Vita and Violet should be considered one of the great Sapphic couples in cinematic history.
It would be easy to empathize solely with the two women who are so clearly limited by the social constraints of their time (evident in Violet’s refrain of, “If you were a man, I should have married you”). But one of the unexpected strengths of the film is its ability to elicit genuine compassion for the husbands who stand on the sidelines of the epic Vita-Violet love affair.
For Violet, marriage is a requirement to be avoided for as long as possible, and she doesn’t hide this fact from her persistent but naïve suitor, Denys Trefusis (Peter Birch). More than once she unceremoniously turns him away in favor of Vita, and the sheer audacity with which she sends him packing is both shocking and amusing. But despite Violet’s careless treatment of Trefusis, he truly cares for her. So willing is he to submit to her desires that he even agrees to a completely chaste marriage.
As Violet’s obsession with Vita grows, Trefusis is clearly devastated by his inability to win her over with gushing adoration and endless indulgences. His increasing humiliation at her hands and her lack of guilt about it is sobering.
Vita has a far more loving and respectful relationship with Harold, but she doesn’t hesitate to spend his money to set sail for Paris or Greece for spontaneous trysts with Violet. And she refuses to lie about her relationship with Violet, or give any false hope to Harold that it is less important to her than her marriage to him.
Harold’s willingness to accept his wife’s love affair with Vita is portrayed as evidence of his strong character, and borne of his desire to give her the utmost freedom. In conversation with male friends, he admits to jealousy, but chalks the affair up to Vita’s inability to separate emotion from sex. He feels some pity for her, as her passionate nature seems to cause her pain, while his ability to detach spares him the same.
The film—despite its focus on the Vita-Violet affair—truly is a portrait of the marriage between Vita and Harold. It depicts a couple far ahead of its time, comprised of two free-thinking people willing to pay the price for their complex authenticity.
Get Portrait of Marriage on DVD at Amazon.com