It is with much sadness that Judge Jim Thomas reveals Ian McShane calls no one a "cocksucker" in this movie.
"The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone dragged him out again, that would be a calamity."
"The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own."
-- Benjamin Disraeli
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) remains one of the most colorful figures of Victorian England. He authored a number of relatively successful novels, but is better remembered as a towering presence in Victorian politics. He served in government for three decades, serving both as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as Prime Minister. His political career was famous for creating the modern Conservative Party in England, and infamous for his rivalry with his political nemesis, William Gladstone.
In 1978, the BBC filmed a biopic on Disraeli, one that focused on his personal life as well as his political one. Starring relative unknown (at the time) Ian McShane as Disraeli, the movie was broadcast on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre in 1980. A&E now brings this movie to DVD.
Facts of the Case
Disraeli overcame a number of obstacles to achieve the pinnacle of English politics. Although he studied law, he decided to pursue a more public life. He had hoped to write poetry, but was forced to write popular romances to keep his creditors at bay. His initial forays into politics met with failure, but at length he was elected to the House of Commons. He was initially mistrusted by all, partly because of his flamboyance—he had a penchant for fine clothes—partly because of his intelligence and wit, and, possibly most of all, because of his Jewish heritage. At length he rose in the leadership of the Conservative Party, becoming the champion of the Reform Act of 1867, which enfranchised every adult male householder. He became Prime Minister in 1868, but was defeated in the following general election. Six years later, the Conservative Party returned to power, and Disraeli served an additional six years as PM. He was a shrewd statesman, expanding Britain's imperial holdings, and keeping both Russia and Germany in check. His party was voted out of office in 1880, and Disraeli died in 1881. The movie covers 1835-1881.
As was the case with many biopics of the era, the main character is idealized; we see nothing that might even hint at a dark side (with the possible exception of the ghastly comb-over McShane sports during Disraeli's later years). We get none of the complexity, the hints of inner turmoil that McShane displays so effortlessly as Al Swearengen. It's a testament to the power of McShane's performance that he can compel our attention with such an underdeveloped character. He's abetted by a solid performance from Mary Peach as his eventual wife Mary Anne. The character is flighty, but Peach conveys a sweetness and honesty in the character that wins over both the audience and Disraeli.
A side effect of characters' simplification is that relationships between Disraeli and others become equally simplified. Disraeli's opposition held him in utter contempt. For example, during his career Disraeli had numerous confrontations with Daniel O'Connor, a prominent Irish politician. At one point, they were to fight a duel, but the police intervened. Sometime later, during a heated debate in Parliament, O'Connor disparaged Disraeli's heritage; Disraeli replied, "Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon." O'Connor doesn't even appear in the movie.
Disraeli's feud with Gladstone was equally vicious, and continued after Disraeli's death. While Queen Victoria, a close friend, wanted to give Disraeli a full state funeral, Disraeli's will specified that he was to have a simple service and be buried next to his wife. Upon hearing of this, Gladstone replied, "As he lived, so he died—all display, without reality or genuineness"—a line that does not appear in the movie. These rivalries, politically and personally, were the stuff of legend, but that level of animosity never manifests itself in the movie—perhaps because if it were present, the viewer might wonder if Disraeli had done something to warrant such contempt. Gladstone comes off as little more than a cranky old goat, even though he had a memorable career in his own right. Such watered-down conflicts undermine Disraeli's convictions because they make Disraeli's eventual success a foregone conclusion. The writers should have taken a cue from one of their most famous countrymen—James Bond—and realized that a hero is only as good as his villain.
As is the case with many historical pieces from this era, it helps if you are familiar with the history of the era, as many political issues, such as the Corn Laws, the Suez Canal, and the Crimean War, are key junctures in the plot—and the BBC assumes that the audience has a passing familiarity with them.
You won't be using this title to show off your new high-def gear, but given that the movie was shot on videotape thirty years ago, it looks pretty good. Images are clear enough, and colors are unexpectedly vibrant; however, blacks don't quite ring true. There's also occasional evidence of edge enhancement. The audio track is very subdued; you may have to turn the volume up higher than normal, and even then some conversations will be muddled. Despite the Dolby 2.0 track, there's very little in the way of stereo imaging; all of the sound is pushed towards the center channel. There are no extras, save for a biography/filmography of McShane.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ian McShane is the only reason to watch the movie; his performance manages to soar above the watered-down script. Most people in America met McShane on the streets of Deadwood, but in England, it was his turn as Disraeli that put him on the map. Intense and charismatic, McShane commands attention much as Disraeli himself must have. The performance itself pulls the viewer through many of the movie's weaknesses. While the other actors are serviceable, none quite rise to McShane's level, but in an odd way, that works for the movie, as very few people rose to Disraeli's level.
The biggest obstacle Disraeli had to overcome was anti-Semitism; while he was born Jewish, he converted to Anglicanism—at his Jewish father's insistence—when he was thirteen. Nevertheless, he was still considered "a Jew" to most of the nobility and upper class, and thus he was viewed with some suspicion. While there are very few moments when the issue is addressed directly, they are forceful enough as to keep the question in the back of your mind. One of the more poignant of such scenes deals with Disraeli's friendship with Prince Albert, a friendship forged over a common burden. While Disraeli contended with anti-Semitism, the Prince Consort contended with nobility that did not want a German taking an active role in English government. It's a rare moment of genuine feeling in the film.
Despite the watered down characters and even more watered down plot, the movie still works, thanks to McShane's strong performance. But, oh, what a masterpiece this could have been with a stronger script…
Guilty, but after an impassioned plea from the esteemed Mr. Disraeli, sentence is suspended.
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Scales of Justice
• Biography of Ian McShane
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