Brideshead Revisited

WFTB Score: 9/20

The plot: Callow and (relatively) impoverished student Charles Ryder travels up to Oxford and befriends young bohemian Sebastian Flyte. However, as Charles becomes acquainted with the Flytes and their ancestral pile, Brideshead, he finds himself falling for both the house and Sebastian’s spirited sister Julia, causing conflict with the family, their faith and most of all their imposing matriarch, Lady Marchmain.

Aspiring artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) needs a friend at Oxford, since his schooling leaves a lot to be desired and his widowed father (Patrick Malahide) isn’t remotely interested in the boy’s progress. Luckily, Charles encounters bon viveur Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) and despite the sarcastic comments of Sebastian’s friends – and the fact that the flamboyant aristocrat is unhealthily attached to his teddy bear, Aloysius – the pair quickly become good friends. In fact, Sebastian is besotted with Charles and takes him to Brideshead, a sprawling house which Charles comes to consider a second home as he becomes more acquainted with the Flytes: strait-laced elder brother Bridey (Ed Stoppard), charming sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), younger sister Cordelia (Felicity Jones) and devout Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), who frets over Sebastian’s lifestyle and dismisses Charles as a ‘painter from Paddington’.

As Charles travels with Sebastian and Julia to visit Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), living in Venice with his mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi), he discovers that his passions truly lie with Julia rather than Sebastian; though she rejects him, their passion eventually finds a physical expression, causing havoc with both Julia’s marriage to opportunist American Rex (Jonathan Cake) and her faith.

There is, of course, no law governing literary adaptations, so there is theoretically no reason on Earth why Julian Jarrold and BBC Films (amongst others) shouldn’t have a go at filming Evelyn Waugh’s celebrated novel. On the other hand, much like Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, this film has to live in the shadow of a ‘definitive’ TV adaptation, in this case an 11-part production made back in 1981.

I’ve not seen ITV’s Brideshead Revisited, so (unlike P&P) I can’t give a blow-by-blow account of the differences, but it is clear that condensing the plot into two-and-a-bit hours leaves significant gaps in the story: most notably in respect of minor characters (Charles’ wife Celia (Anna Madeley) falls out of the picture very easily), but also in respect of Sebastian, who is largely forgotten once consigned to Morocco.

Although the film is infused with Lady Marchmain’s fervent Catholicism and the guilt it imbues in her children, Brideshead Revisited the movie is in essence a simple love story, the tale of a social climber who uses Sebastian’s forlorn affections to reach the woman he really loves, only to find that his actions destroy the possibility of that love enduring. And while the tale is handsomely told, at times the film feels more like a hurried sprint than a dignified walk through Brideshead’s grounds.

The result of the film’s haste is that Brideshead Revisited only scratches the surface of its characters, so the viewer’s empathy is limited: are these not poor little rich kids (and adults), swanning about in finery, with endless leisure time to fill between wine-quaffing, holidaying, and occasional fretting about what God thinks of them? I certainly didn’t feel particularly heartbroken about Julia and Charles’ relationship, nor did I worry overly about Sebastian or Lord Marchmain’s eternal souls; and in that sense the film doesn’t do its job.

Compensation comes in the shape of some arresting performances: Matthew Goode is quite,er, good in the lead role, while both Whishaw and Atwell acquit themselves adequately as youngsters whose spirits are crushed under their mother’s disapproving gaze. That said, the real impact is made by the senior actors: Patrick Malahide is gloriously vile as the sneering Mr Ryder and Gambon customarily effective in a cameo role; more than these, Emma Thompson’s icy performance dominates the picture, much as Lady Marchmain dominates her children. While Thompson is on screen, the film packs a real punch, and although her influence lingers throughout, it is a shame that she is lost to the story from around the half way mark. I should also mention the contribution made by Yorkshire’s impressive Castle Howard (reprising its role of Brideshead from the television series), a fabulous setting for the action; Venice, as always, looks good on film too.

I have tried to avoid describing Brideshead Revisited along class lines, since even with the Flytes’ evident entitlement there is no reason why they could not have engaging lives, or that the satire implicit in Waugh’s novel could not sear off the screen. Nevertheless, there is something lacking in this adaptation which means that, despite good acting, a decent score and impeccable production values, this film feels – for the most part – sterile and underwhelming. Those who have seen the TV adaptation may say what’s lacking is the nine hours of material lost to make a single movie, I couldn’t tell you; what I can say is that while the film looks every bit as sumptuous as you would expect from a British-made period drama, it lacks the substance and weight to do justice to the source material.

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