When Brideshead Revisited started airing in England - then America - in the early 1980s, actress Hayley Atwell hadn't even been born.
But that's not why she never tracked down the landmark series, based on the Evelyn Waugh novel and starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Diana Quick, and Laurence Olivier.
"I made a point of not watching it. The novel became the point of reference for me and also the script. It was very clear that we were making a film adaptation of the book, as opposed to a remake of the television series, and if it was to have any integrity at all, it would have to stand alone, as would my performance," Atwell said in a recent telephone call.
"I didn't want any sense of intimidation from watching the series at all. In not doing so, it gave me a freedom."
Atwell could make socialite Julia Flyte her own, not a copycat or counterpoint to the same character portrayed by Quick in the 11-part series that became appointment television for Anglophiles.
Director Julian Jarrold conceded that Atwell wasn't the obvious choice for the two-hour adaptation opening. The daughter of a photographer-father and a mother who gives speeches on communication and motivation, Atwell is not to the manor born.
"I'm very much a modern woman, and I'm probably a little bit more wild and spontaneous than Julia is. So, I was bringing to Julia probably a more earthy quality. "
Julia comes from an aristocratic family steeped in its Catholic faith and ruled by its matriarch, Lady Marchmain, played by Emma Thompson, in the years between the world wars.
The elder of two daughters, Julia calls herself the "family shadow," particularly when compared with her brother, Sebastian (Ben Whishaw). Atwell plays her as an outsider and observer, a woman who is a prisoner of her inner conflicts, particularly as she ages.
"Julia doesn't feel like she fits in, but she's also bound by her family and her upbringing." That leaves her restrained and slightly removed as she tries to figure out whether she should follow God or follow her heart and artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode).
Lady Marchmain cautions Charles, an atheist, that Julia is destined to marry a Catholic: "Her future is not a question of choice. It is a matter of faith."
Atwell, who made her film debut as a modern-day actress opposite Ewan McGregor in Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, and others underwent etiquette classes before shooting began. That allowed them to understand the dining customs, which required guests to refrain from eating until an elder started.
Women did not sit cross-legged, and they posed as if drawing a diagonal line with their bodies to appear long and lean, down to the cigarette holder serving as an extension of the arm.
"Once we were in the costumes and once we were with each other and in that house, those things seemed to fall into place very quickly, because the world is set up there for you and you just have to inhabit it. "
Mimicking her strong-willed matriarch, Thompson took charge of her on-screen family, taking them to lunch, dinner, for drinks, or to parties, visiting their trailers, and inviting them to hers. Thompson also led them to a London Catholic church for a traditional Latin Mass, although they ducked out at Communion to head to her house for a Sunday roast.
A priest familiar with the Waugh novel spent two weeks on the set so the actors could understand the church's sacred hymns, rituals, and rites, including beliefs about Communion and the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.
Co-star Whishaw was another teacher and model for Atwell.
"I don't think anyone would see it in the film, but how economical he is in his movements, his facial expressions. There's one thing he does with his mouth, I was doing it a lot. I was trying to mimic some of his gestures so it would look like we were together, almost twin-like in our moves."
Like the miniseries, the adaptation was shot at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, but unlike the miniseries, it veers from the book by sending Julia to Venice with her brother and Charles. Representatives of the Waugh estate approved the change, Atwell says.
Unchanged is the story's emphasis on religious, class, and educational divides.
"England is very much caught up in a class system, which has become a lot murkier, especially since the second world war, which was kind of the beginning of the crumbling of the aristocracy. But there's the question of old money and new money and what Margaret Thatcher was doing to change how we viewed class and how we viewed money.
"I think it has shifted a lot, but it's still there, it still feels even within my blood and quite a difficult thing for English people to get over."
Atwell next will be seen in wig and corset in The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley as the Duchess of Devonshire, Georgiana Spencer, an ancestor of Princess Diana.
Atwell's character becomes the Duke's mistress in a film about the birth of celebrity, the imbalance of power between the sexes, the lengths mothers would go to in order to see their children, and how a style icon had the power to change the face of politics.
In the meantime, the actress has no immediate plans to track down the TV miniseries that features the aristocratic English family in the waning days of the empire.
"I'm kind of Bridesheaded-out. We finished a year ago, I've moved on to other projects but having seen it three times in the last few months and I'm going to see it again in New York and then again in London I need a break until I can come back both to our film objectively and the series objectively. I will definitely revisit it, but it won't be for a while."
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Barbara Vancheri is the movie editor for the Post-Gazette.
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