Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB. , 1945. , . Screenplay by , based on his play. Cinematography by , , . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by . Academy Awards 1946. Cannes Film Festival 1946.
Producer Gabriel Pascal ramped up his effort to bring Shaw to the big screen following the Oscar-winning success of his 1938 production of Pygmalion, spending the highest budget ever lavished on a British film with this adaptation of one of the great author’s smartest and most thought-provoking plays. As the title suggests, it’s about the meeting of the Roman emperor with the still young and unsure Egyptian queen, but the characters are there to stand in for Shaw’s ruminations on morality in power and the divide between the personal and the political. Giant sets, including a pretty big sphinx, contribute to the dazzle of a movie that doesn’t feel stagy but does provide a slightly forced reality in a very appealing way, its scenes mainly concerned with the young woman’s ramping up her ambition to lead a country and leave behind her girlish ways and fear of her own servants. The telling of this tale is aided a great deal by the casting of Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh in the leads, two stalwart actors who have great command of the mouthfuls of dialogue that Shaw writes as well as the technique for acting on camera in even the most theatrical of pieces, but even their star power can’t move it along as well as it should. Audiences at the time didn’t appreciate the film, staying away from theatres and plunging Pascal into financial disaster, and time hasn’t improved much on its esoteric qualities, the chemistry between the characters that the drama trades on still works much better on the live stage than it does on screen. It’s well worth seeing, though, its various elements are all valuable despite not fully coming together, and Leigh, although technically too old for the role, plays the naïve coquette with exceptional skill and ease.