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Brideshead Revisited

October 9, 2008

I’m sure most people know the story, but for the record, Brideshead Revisited concerns “the sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder” who, as the film begins, is walking dreamily out of a grand English house (Castle Howard, in reality) and musing on his past, and the time he spent in the same place a decade earlier.

Then, he had been a student at Oxford, where he meets Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), the younger son of an aristocratic family and, fascinated by the closed and exotic society he inhabits, becomes friends with him. Sebastian is clearly head over heels in love with Charles (Matthew Goode), and although this distracts him, Charles is more in thrall to Brideshead itself, the rest of the family Flyte, and in particular Sebastian’s sister, the Lady Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell) a seemingly distant and cold society beauty.

Sebastian and Charles spend the summer after their first year together, and become close, but it is Brideshead and Julia that Charles is falling in love with, not Sebastian, and a tension grows between them. Adjacent to this, Sebastian’s family is Catholic, and strong, even overwhelming religious considerations steer the family from one major decision to another. Catholicism influences their lives completely, and once Charles makes his feelings towards Julia known, the fact that he has much earlier stated he is an atheist throws the whole network of emotions and relationships into turmoil.

I’ll not say much more than that, for it’s a complex plot and after that initial set-up any more information would act as distinct spoilers. And anyway, it should be acknowledged that the fact that plot has been jiggered around with (this is an Andrew Davies adaptation after all) and includes several conflations where devices, threads, concepts and places have been moulded to allow a speedier resolution of the plot. Hmm. Much gnashing of teeth there, I’d guess, especially among Evelyn Waugh buffs who may not wish to see their much-loved novel buggered about in such a manner.

And there’s the rub. Moving around this like some moody grumbling acolyte, there is the heavy reputation of Charles Sturridge’s grand 1981 television adaptation, that classic cultural behemoth, and it cannot be ignored. Do we need to Revisit a story that was so completely ‘done’ more than a quarter of a century ago? Especially when it’s not going to be so completely done again? It’s difficult to say; TV Brideshead was huge, 650 minutes of minutely observed languorous perfection, which took longer to watch than it did to read the book. Even the Beeb’s recent Bleak House adaptation only came in at 510 minutes; Middlemarch 375 minutes; here, we have a one-off movie, and it has just over two hours to get everything in. Inevitably, then, ‘everything’ won’t be enough for some, and it has caused significant consternation among the crits, which are, it must be said, ‘mixed’.

I found, Flytily, that I didn’t really care. So handsomely mounted and gorgeous to look at is this that I put a great deal of my reservations to one side and just ran with it. Brideshead: The Movie has a lot of similarities with last year’s Atonement, particularly a dreamy otherness at points where Charles is clearly taken away by beauty (either Julia’s or Brideshead’s); it also deals with issues of one person upsetting the applecart for an established elite, just as Briony managed with Cecilia and Robbie, so too here Charles, with Sebastian and his family.

It is uniformly acted to perfection, from newcomer Matthew Goode’s quietly disruptive Charles, to Hayley Atwell’s radiant yet damaged Julia, but the real star is – as if it needs saying – Emma Thompson, as the studiously terrifying Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother. Incapable of accepting the feelings that Charles has for Julia, she faces him down with such genteel disparagement in one scene that you wonder if she isn’t going to melt a hole right through him with her stare. This is a woman 100% filled with piss and vinegar, but allowing none of it to show; just the merest twist of her mouth speaking volumes for the position she feels he has put her in.

Ultimately, Brideshead Revisited falls short because it doesn’t quite take the time, ironically, that’s needed to make you realise just why Charles loves the house so much, or even Julia, and you cannot truly appreciate why he feels it so necessary to jeopardise himself and others, and cause all the upset that he manages. Had the film added ten minutes (which no-one would have minded, for it is wonderful to look at) to flesh out Charles’s feelings a little more, we might have had something really special on our hands. As it is, this is still worth the effort, and if the emotional kick isn’t all it could have been, it’s not the fault of the players, all of whom work their socks off to try and Revisit an old icon.


One Comment leave one →
  1. October 17, 2008 7:37 am

    I have read the book but never seen the TV adaptation so perhaps I could come to this without too many preconceptions.

    I might give it a go, thanks.

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