Portrait of a Marriage is a three-part BBC version of Nigel Nicolson’s 1980 book of the same name about his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Both conducted homosexual affairs throughout their long marriage, and Portrait focuses on Sackville-West’s three-year liaison with Violet Trefusis. Far from being exploitive, Portrait sets its characters’ sex lives in a social and historical context.
As host Alistair Cooke points out, this marriage might strike most of us as absurd — why live with someone of the opposite sex if the opposite sex doesn’t appeal to you? — but the relationship between Nicolson (played by David Haig) and Sackville-West (Janet McTeer) was full of mutual admiration, respect, and genuine affection. Then too, the marriage was convenient — it permitted both parties to pursue their lovers under a cover of respectability.
Portrait of a Marriage, directed by Stephen Whittaker and adapted by Penelope Mortimer, is one of the most beautiful-looking Masterpiece Theatres ever — Whittaker does full justice to the gorgeous gardens that Sackville-West cultivated throughout her life. The acting is equally artful. McTeer plays Sackville-West with a brooding intensity that makes her character’s every impetuous act believable.
Portrait goes on a bit too long — despite the fact that for its American showing, it has been primly trimmed and portions of some love scenes between Vita and Violet have been excised. Cowardice reigns at PBS these days, but the quality and passion of this Portrait shine through anyway. A-