It might play out like a drama and a romance but, when you pay attention to the subtext, A Fortunate Man is a social commentary. It tells us that poor people with great ideas go nowhere without the support of the moneyed elite. It also tells us that geniuses who feel guilt about becoming more and better because of their religious upbringing are doomed to remain poor and unhappy.
It sounds harsh, I know. And if you didn’t catch all that when you watched An Fortunate Man, watch it again and try hard to focus less on the beautiful scenery, the magnificent interiors of the mansions of the rich and the drama that brings the characters together and wrecked them apart.
Peter Sidenius, son of a celebrated clergyman, is accepted to a university in Copenhagen. Against his father’s wishes, he leaves home. An escape, really, from his overbearing father and his even more overbearing piousness. Armed with visions and plans of harnessing water and wind to supply his country with electricity, he discovers in school early on that visionaries like him are frowned upon.
Education, it appears, is simply to get acquainted with established knowledge — not extend it nor find practical application with it. As one of his professors told him quite sternly, “A young man such as yourself needs no other other ambition than that of acquiring and assimilating knowledge.”
Peter meets Ivan Salomon, scion of a wealthy Jeweish family who listens to his plans and encourages his ideas. Ivan brings him home to meet his family and, in no time, Peter has ear of Ivan’s father, Phillip, and his colleagues.
At the Salomon home, Peter also gets to know Ivan’s sisters, Nanny and Jakobe. It is the rather flippant and prettier Nanny that catches Peter’s eye first. Jakobe, after all, is already engaged to a wealthy but much older widower with two daughters. But Peter changes gears after hearing a casual remark that Jakobe, being the older daughter, stands to get a larger inheritance. It doesn’t hurt either that Jakobe has brains and is not afraid to voice out her opinions.
The determined Peter wins over Jakobe whose family, along with other wealthy Jewish businessmen, finances Peter’s further education in Austria and later commits to fund his revolutionary ideas and turn them into actual projects. There’s one condition though. He has to apologize for his angry words to the government’s chief engineer who had earlier derided his ideas as “utopian” and “infantile gibberish”, and who only agreed to endorse them if he himself got involved in the projects. Peter balks. He loses the support of the Jewish families and, unable to secure loans to finance the projects himself, his plans go nowhere.
Meanwhile, he goes home to bury his mother. He visits the vicar and gets smitten by his daughter. He goes back to Copenhagen, breaks off his enagagement with Jakobe and marries the vicar’s daughter. He continues tinkering with his ideas but, in the end, he gets alienated from his own family and dies alone.
The rich don’t embrace the poor unless they are of some use
At first glance, it would seem that the friendship between Peter and Ivan was borne out of a shared vision. Peter has ideas, and the educated and sophisticated Ivan appreciated them and believed that the ideas can find fruition. It would seem like the camaraderie between brothers and bosom friends.
Looking deeper, it is more than what meets the eye. The Salomon family, along with those in their social and business circles (it’s the same circle, really) saw Peter as a potential business investment and his ideas an attractive business proposition that could bring them loads of profit. And when Peter refused to apologize to the chief engineer, the remaining hurdle to turn his ideas into profitable projects, the Salomons and their friends washed their hands off him.
The only exception was Jakobe who, after discovering Peter’s family background and suffering his neglect, continued to love him with all her heart. She loved him so much that she refused to burden him with news of her pregnancy. Neither did she use her pregnancy as a way of clinging to him when he turned his back on their engagement.
Peter saw his failure as a punishment from God
One night after burying his mother, Peter was restless and went for a walk. He met the vicar who walked with him and Peter unburdended himself.
Mostly, I just feel trapped. I can’t sleep because of all these thoughts. These contradictions… Like I’m being put to the test. Or like I’m being punished for my life. Is God judging me for the way I’ve been living? Is that why I feel so forlorn?… Or did my father put a curse on me, is that why I have been unsettled?
And he was on his knees asking the vicar for his blessing for forsaking his father and mother, and hurting people who had loved him. “I deserve to be punished,” he sobbed.
And he turned his life around. Back to simplicity. Back to his humble roots. Back to the beliefs from his strict religious upbringing. Away from the possibility of utilizing science and technology to boost progress. And all because he could not shake off the fear that he was doomed to fail for being too ambitious — a character flaw that the God of his childhood frowned upon and punished.