Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden have an affair, with devastating consequences for all involved. [Dir: Christopher Menaul/ Helen Mirren, Eric Stoltz, Julie Delpy, Peter Fonda/ 104 min/ Drama, Biography/ Ayn Rand-Objectivism]
See trailer here.
This film has something for everyone. First, for Rand’s fans, this is an intimate look at the woman Ayn Rand, a look that explains with some understanding the well-known affair between herself and Nathaniel Branden. Also, interwoven with the telling of the details of the affair are glimpses of the creation of Rand’s magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. There could have been more exposition of Rand’s philosophy, but you get a pretty good idea what she was all about.
Second, for Rand’s enemies, there is simply the fact that this film is about an affair. Affairs are not the most dignified things, especially when carried on with someone twenty-five years younger, as Nathaniel Branden was to Rand, and especially when involving what appeared to be rough sex, that being the way Rand apparently wanted it. One can only imagine the satisfaction of leftists at the spectacle.
And finally, for those who know nothing of Ayn Rand, there is the sheer drama of the story: a brilliant, world-changing novelist at the center of an intergenerational affair that ultimately destroys love, friendships, and business.
Also in the plus column is a remarkably well selected cast. Helen Mirren, in particular, is superb as Rand. Every nuance, down to Rand’s posture and intensity of expression, is faithfully duplicated. (Mirren won an Emmy for her performance.) Some of the camera work is also superior.
This film has been criticized for dredging up dirty laundry, but rightly or wrongly, people want to know all about their heroes. Rand fans are no exception. And anyway, dirty laundry or not, the film doesn’t contradict her philosophy except with respect to the idea that feelings and physical attraction must entirely follow logic. Clearly that idea didn’t work here, as “love has reasons that reason knows nothing of.”
This tragedy largely reflects a lack of feedback. Rand, the ultimate champion of reason, wanted to believe that feelings must be entirely subordinate to it. She also wanted to believe that Nathaniel Branden loved her as much as and in the same way that she loved him. So why didn’t anyone tell her she was wrong?
As told here, the explanations varied with the character of the individuals involved. There was the sense that they should try to live up to her vision. There were mixed emotions. There was immaturity. There was financial dependence. And there was cowardice. The stakes were high, as Rand was capable of reacting badly. The more the affair went on, the higher the stakes got. It’s something of an irony that Rand, the supreme individualist, would end up intimidating her closest friends into submission, but there it is.
My only real complaint about this film is that by default it gives exaggerated prominence to this low point in Rand’s life. If it were just one part of a ten or twelve part series, as indeed the affair is just a small part of the Barbara Branden book on which it is based, there would be no problem. But it isn’t part of a series. There is nothing else to put it in a broader, more positive context. Even the much-praised documentary about Rand, Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, doesn’t really tell her full story, as it’s sanitized not only of this affair but also of the tremendously positive impact she had on so many people. For my money, Barbara Branden’s book is still the only biography, on or off screen, that does justice to Rand. At the very least this filmed excerpt from it is a great drama and will no doubt stimulate more popular interest in Rand’s works, something that is all to the good.