The idea of revisiting Brideshead Revisited in feature-film form strikes aficionados of the 1981 maxi-series as sacrilegious. That's also how Charles Ryder strikes Lady Marchmain.
Shy, polite Charles (Matthew Goode), the narrator-hero of Evelyn Waugh's novel, is a serious young Oxford student of no means - quite the opposite of Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), Lady Marchmain's dissipated son. Their introduction consists of the aristocratic Sebastian throwing up through the window of Charles' dorm room.
To make amends, Sebastian invites Charles to dinner, then to Brideshead, his fabulous family manse, where Charles must pass muster with imperious Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). She is that rare thing - a staunchly Catholic peer of the Protestant realm. Charles is that not-so-rare thing among young people of his day: an avowed atheist.
"Surely, an agnostic at least?" the matriarch prompts.
Perhaps. In any case, she comes to value him for his positive influence - and watchful eye - on Sebastian. Charles, meanwhile, is dazzled by the lifestyle and by Sebastian's sexy sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). At Brideshead, it's all booze and cigarettes, all the time. Initially seduced by the fun-loving siblings, Charles is gradually compromised by their controlling mother.
The tragic figure and real focus is not Charles but Sebastian, who starts out as a sweet, spoiled, childlike kind of Oscar Wilde. How infantilized is this boy? He still clutches his toy bear wherever he goes. But his (largely platonic) homosexual relationship with Charles is doomed by mounting jealousy, alcoholism, and a descent to the opium dens of Morocco.
Waugh, an equal-opportunity satirist, was also an anti-Semite and hater of all things Yankee. (Remember The Loved One, his immortal send-up of the California funeral business?) He once said that half-a-dozen Americans, at most, might understand the complex English social and religious issues of Brideshead. He was a Catholic convert whose English Catholicism (Lady Marchmain's variety) differed greatly from the Italian Catholicism of her estranged husband: "We do what our heart tells us to do - then we go to confession."
At 133 minutes, this Brideshead is practically a short subject compared with the meandering 11-hour TV series. If either is defective in size, it's the bloated TV version more than the relatively lean film. (The book is only 315 pages, after all.) But this version faces inevitable comparisons with the fabulous original cast (Jeremy Irons as Charles, Claire Bloom and Laurence Olivier as the Marchmains): Emma Thompson's normally admirable restraint makes her more empathetic but less terrifying than Bloom. Goode is a sincere but bland Charles. Atwell's Julia dazzles with her Louise Brooks hairdo and gorgeous profile to rival Nefertiti's.
If anybody steals this show, it is Whishaw, whose vulnerable Sebastian is much edgier and more desperately, overtly gay than Anthony Andrews in the TV series.
Director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) and screenwriter Jeremy Brock have fashioned a visually beautiful Brideshead that is much sprightlier and more erotic than the series, even if its pat, hasty denouement isn't terribly satisfying. That's more the author's fault than his interpreters': In both its 1981 maxi and 2008 mini-incarnation, Waugh's postwar escapist tale is a glorified soap opera at heart. But a more lush, lovely, and literate one you'll look long and hard to find.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Barry Paris is a film critic for the Post-Gazette.
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