By Joan Killam
"In a progressive country change is constant; change is inevitable."
Benjamin Disraeli - 1804 - 1881
The publication of Benjamin Disraeli's novel Vivian Grey in 1826 and its sequel in 1827 fostered the novelist's invitations to gatherings of the influential social circles of London. Many of these new friends and acquaintances would prove to be most beneficial to Disraeli's political ambitions as he struggled to overcome prejudice against his Jewish birth and to win a seat in Parliament. The four-part film Disraeli: Portrait of a Romantic chronicles his personal and political life beginning in 1832. Written by David Butler and directed by Claude Whatham, the 1978 film is presented in a series of acts that move the viewer quickly yet intelligibly through almost fifty years of Benjamin Disraeli's life.
In the opening scene Disraeli's arrival at a party is imminent. His reputation as a leading writer and political columnist for The Times has prompted many to want to meet the man of such quick wit. The ladies are particularly curious regarding the well-dressed attractive Disraeli, portrayed by Ian McShane, who readily admits to being "as obsessed about politics as most men are by drink or women." Rumors abound that Disraeli plans to stand for election to Parliament, and Lord Blessington seizes the occasion to introduce Disraeli to Sir Robert Peel, who is played by Antony Brown. During the party, Lord Blessington decides to give Disraeli the nickname "Dizzy," which he will come to be called by his closest friends.
Shortly thereafter, Disraeli was defeated in his first attempt to reach Parliament as an Independent candidate form Wycombe. Lady Blessington, portrayed by Margaret Whiting, consoled Dizzy by gently reminding him that "without noble birth, powerful friends, or a fortune behind you, what can you hope to achieve?" Already hopelessly crippled by debt, Disraeli borrowed money to run for the Wycombe seat a second time but was again defeated. He declares, "I refuse to let myself be beaten," while realizing the colossal task of trying to become the first Jew to serve in the House of Commons.
At another social gathering Disraeli met Lady Henrietta Sykes, played by Madlena Nedeva. Lady Sykes had read Disraeli's books and was one of his greatest admirers. Her lonely marriage to the womanizing Sir Frances Sykes contributed to an affair with Disraeli that restricted their participation in important social circles. However, Lady Sykes was responsible for introducing Disraeli to the influential Lord Lyndhurst, portrayed by Mark Digham. Still smarting from his loss in a third bid to win Wycombe, Disraeli was invited to serve as Lord Lyndhurst's unofficial secretary in attempt to draw him into important political circles. The plan proved so successful, and soon the Duke of Wellington was so impressed by Disraeli that he wrote to Peel that they must do something to help him. Disraeli's affair soon ended after Lady Sykes' betrayal of him with another man, but he had garnered new political respect through Lord Lyndhurst's introductions. As Lyndhurst's secretary, Disraeli visited Kensington Palace to see the new Queen, Victoria, and he reported that the young Victoria was "pale but composed - a Queen to the very tips of her toes."
Disraeli's political future was indelibly marked by his introduction to Mrs. Wyndham (Mary Anne) Lewis, portrayed in the film by Mary Peach. Through her coaxing Mr. Lewis invited Disraeli to stand with him for election at Maidstone. On July 27, 1837 Benjamin Disraeli finally achieved his dream of being elected to Parliament. However, he soon began a new struggle to be taken seriously when his maiden speech to Parliament on December 7 was received with heckling from the radicals and even from a few of his fellow conservatives, yet the ever confident Disraeli did not falter as he proclaimed, "there will come a time when you will hear me."
Fortunately, Peel later congratulated Disraeli on his speech and apologized for his side's behavior. Peel graciously advised Disraeli that although he had a fine voice and a good temper for addressing his peers in Parliament, they would more easily accept him if he toned down his brilliance and kept quoting dates and figures for a while. Peel suggested that they would eventually yearn for his wit, and he would become a favored speaker.
After the death of Wyndham Lewis, Disraeli's close friend Count Alfred D'Orsay, played by Leigh Lawson, suggested to Disraeli that Mrs. Lewis would be a suitable wife for him. In addition to solving his financial woes, marriage to Mrs. Lewis would further promote Disraeli's social and political status. Disraeli engaged in mutual correspondence with Mary Anne Lewis while she was away following her husband's death. Despite being thirteen years younger than Mary Anne, Disraeli proposed to her upon her return to London, and they were married a year later. Mary Anne Disraeli proved to be the most influential as Disraeli's chief supporter and confidante. However, as Peel replaced Lord Melbourne as Prime Minister, even Mary Anne's secret letter to Peel did not help win Disraeli a position in the new government. Despite the blow, Disraeli continued to serve in Parliament, and he and Peel became bitter rivals.
The film presents Disraeli making numerous speeches in Parliament which mark the slow progression to an eventual vote in which Peel lost the party and resigned. However, it was a bitter triumph for the Conservative Disraeli. With the party not ready to accept Disraeli as their leader, he encouraged and supported Lord George Bentinck, played by Anton Rodgers, for the position. Lord Bentinck, who fiercely disliked Disraeli when they head first met years before, became another of Disraeli's mentors and and relied heavily on Disraeli for political advice. It was Bentinck who pointed out to Disraeli that people expect their statesmen to look the part and who suggested that if he adopted a more conservative form of dress, he would be taken more seriously. Bentinck also believed that as a leader of the landed gentry, Disraeli should himself own property, and he offered Disraeli a loan without interest to help him secure land.
After Bentinck's death and Disraeli's fifteen years of service to the government, Disraeli was offered the positionof Chancellor of the Exchequer. As the first half of the film closes, a sense of foreshadowing of greater things to come is achieved as Disraeli exchanges glances with Queen Victoria during his swearing in ceremony with the film's music swelling in the background.
Costume designers Ann Hollowood and Sheelagh Killeen are to be commended for the period gowns and costumes used in the film. The portrayal of Disraeli's early attire with its colorful fabrics and fancy gold chains helps the viewer understand his reputation as a dandy and Bentinck's suggestion that he adopt a more conservative form of dress.
In addition to the novels written by Benjamin Disraeli, recommended reading about his life includes Stanley Weintrub's Disraeli, a Biography, Young Disraeli by Jane Ridley, Disraeli's Reminiscences edited by Helen M. Swartz and Mavin Swartz, and Victoria and Disraeli: The Making of a Romantic Partnership by Theo Aronson. The Disraeli Project, a research program at Queen's University at Kingston, Canada, can be accessed via the internet at www.qsilver.queensu.ca/english/dismen.html.