Ayn Rand Helen Mirren
Nathaniel Branden Eric Stoltz
Barbara Branden Julia Delpy
Frank O’Connor Peter Fonda
Caroline Sybil Temchen
Richard Tom McCamus
Alfred Don McKellar
Based on her relentless pseudo-intellectual posturing, some might find the title “The Passion of Ayn Rand” oxymoronic. Nonetheless, it’s an ambitious, visually sumptuous attempt to depict a bizarre element of a controversial personality’s life. Unfortunately, its insistence on maintaining a detached point of view towards its characters – or, rather, no point of view at all, as the filmmakers seem reticent to offend either Rand fans or detractors – renders it dramatically inert. Clever and affecting scenes mingle freely with extremely silly, highly pitched ones; the result is an intriguing and frustrating evocation of a singular woman’s sensibility.
Rand (portrayed by Helen Mirren) was the author of college-lit classics “The Fountainhead” (turned into a film in 1949 by King Vidor starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal) and “Atlas Shrugged,” emerging as a poster child for the Me Decade some four decades or so too soon. Film focuses on her affair with Nathaniel Branden (Eric Stoltz), a man 25 years her junior, and so enamored of her philosophies as to be something of an acolyte (she, in turn, finds him “brilliant”), with the full knowledge of both her husband (Peter Fonda) and her lover’s young, callow wife (Julia Delpy).
Forcing the affair on their respective spouses by describing it as an intellectual pursuit, Rand and Branden embraced the homily “The rich are different from you and me” as both a virtue and a life’s philosophy. Ultimately, and inevitably, the film shows that these pitiful souls celebrating a life of the mind were, despite their pretensions, as misguided and messed-up as anyone else.
Script by Howard Korder and Mary Gallagher is filled with witty lines and grandiose pronouncements, but director Christopher Menaul can’t decide whether it’s come to bury or praise these shenanigans, so there’s little sorrow to be experienced at the breaking of brittle hearts.
One scene in particular, in which Rand bullies her ineffectual husband into being rough with her sexually, underscores – despite being executed mainly by implication, how the film can’t decide if there’s even a correct tone to be found for the material. More egregiously, “Passion” has made all its points and run out of narrative steam a good 15 minutes before the credits roll.
Stoltz, perhaps surprisingly given the high caliber of this cast, gives the film’s best performance – he’s a marvel of crisp, erudite pomposity and brazen, lusting opportunism. Mirren pours a lot of effort to get Rand’s particulars just right – the Russian accent, the passion beneath the ice-queen facade. Unfortunately, what viewers may remember most about her turn is the grotesque bluster – she’s a little like “Sunset Boulevard’s” Norma Desmond before her fall. Fonda’s halting, droopy and curious turn leaves an air of Quaalude dependency about Rand’s cuckolded hubby.
Delpy, closer than ever to losing her French accent once and for all, is handed a difficult character – she’s supposed to be watery, wimpy, strong and empathetic all at once – and makes a surprising amount of sense of the contradictions. She does, however, ratchet a couple of the extremely emotional scenes a notch too high. Since the film is based on a book by Delpy’s character, it’s not surprising that at film’s end, she’s the only one not crushed or embittered.
Supporting turns are uniformly excellent; the actors create more of their characters than is evident from the script. Tech credits are all top-notch, with special kudos for the effort expended on the visuals – Ron Orieux’s lensing, Lindsey Hermer-Bell’s production design and Resa McConaghy’s costuming – as well as Jeff Beal’s evocative Jazz-Age score.