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brideshead revisited

Brideshead Revisited
Julian Jarrold
Cast:  Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell, Patrick Malahide, Joseph Beattie, Ben Whishaw, Ed Stoppard, Emma Thompson, Felicity Jones, Michael Gambon

Joanne Ross

August 5, 2008


The first two questions that fans are likely to ask of the eagerly awaited film version of Brideshead Revised are:

  1. Is the film adaptation faithful to the novel?
  2. Is it as good as the miniseries?

My answer to both questions is, “I don’t know.” Unfortunately, I never read Evelyn Waugh’s book, nor did I ever see the much loved, 11-episode series. Because the film runs at 2 hours and 15 minutes, I assume something gets lost in the translation. However, I leave the inevitable comparisons to the experts qualified to comment.

What I can say is I thoroughly enjoyed Julian Jarrold’s visually opulent and engrossing period drama which touches on some large themes such as religious devotion (Catholicism), forbidden desire, class differences, duty and responsibility, guilt and manipulation, the loss of innocence, homosexuality, salvation and redemption, and reconciliation The story takes place during a time of great upheaval in Great Britain, the years between the two World Wars, and the film reflects a bittersweet yearning for “perceived-to-be-better” bygone days. The aristocracy as a class seems to be in the midst of death throes; I guess in some ways the plight of the Marchmain family could be symbolic of that change.  Because of the film’s religious theme, Brideshead Revisited could easily go by the alternate title Paradise Lost (alluding to Milton’s epic poem of the Fall of Man) as it perfectly describes the protagonist’s experience with the family and their estate.

Brideshead Revisited is the story of Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), an ambitious, young, middle-class man who while at Oxford forms an unlikely friendship with another student, the wealthy and dissolute Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw). The story starts at the end during World War II, as Charles, the narrator, now an army officer is billeted at the Brideshead estate.  The story unfolds as Charles recalls his budding relationship with Sebastian on that long-ago, idyllic summer when he first visited the majestic Brideshead, and met his friend’s family—Lady Marchmain (the superb Emma Thompson), Cordelia (Felicity Jones), Bridley (Ed Stoppard), and Julia (Hayley Atwell), with whom Charles will later fall in love.

To Charles, the magnificent Brideshead is like the Garden of Eden. As an outsider, he is seduced by the wealth and privilege of the Marchmains, who are devout Catholics, and by the palatial opulence of the estate.  The world at Brideshead is far removed from the sterile life the atheist Charles leads with his droll father, Edward (Patrick Malahide).  But Sebastian is reluctant to share Charles with his family, particularly his formidable and manipulative mater whose maxim is, “God commands, and we obey.”

Lady Marchmain tries to recruit Charles to keep an eye on the unhappy and wayward Sebastian (the prodigal son personified) who is hastening his descent into the bottle. She suggests he accompany Sebastian and Julia on a trip abroad to Venice to visit their scandalous father Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), who is living in sin with his Italian mistress, Cara (Greta Scacchi), who like Lady Marchmain, is also a Catholic, only one of a different stripe. As Cara explains: “It is different in Italy. Not so much guilt. We do what the heart tells us and then we go to confession.”  One night during a carnival, Sebastian sees Charles and Julia kissing. From that point on, the friendship between the three of them changes.

In the fall, Lady Marchmain again requests Charles help with Sebastian, visibly changed for the worse since returning from Venice. At a ball held at Brideshead when Julia’s engagement to Rex Mottram (Jonathan Cake) is announced, Lady Marchmain learns that Charles has gone against her wishes, and she expels him from Brideshead. In effect, Charles has been chucked out of Eden. As the years go by and Charles becomes a celebrated painter, he is again called back to Brideshead on two additional occasions.

Thompson and Whishaw deliver standout performances. Gambon, Malahide, and Scacchi, also do fine turns in their small roles, as does Joseph Beattie as the foppish and incisive Anthony Blanche, one of Sebastian’s old school chums. Goode and Atwell, on the other hand, aren’t as strong in their roles. Only later in the movie does Atwell’s Julia start to come across as a real flesh and blood character. Goode could be the younger brother of Rupert Everett and Jeremy Irons, who played Charles in the miniseries. He looks and sounds like them, but that’s where the similarities end.  Goode lacks the dazzling talent and the presence those two stellar actors possess.  He is wooden and expressionless, too detached and remote for my taste.

We can’t forget that other great character. I’m speaking about Brideshead itself. Sebastian and Julia alternately love and fear Brideshead. To them, it must seem like the Great Mother who gives birth to her children but refuses to let them individuate and leave her.  Though they escape for brief periods, they always return as if tied to her by invisible and as yet uncut umbilical cords. Even Lord Marchmain comes back in the end. Back to the house, and back to the bosom of the church.

Catholicism hangs like a shroud over the proceedings. It seems at first that the Marchmain’s faith causes nothing but suffering for them. Is Waugh damning religion? At first I thought so, but then I realized that isn’t the author’s message at all.  Cara is a Catholic, and her faith isn’t harming her.  Charles, always at odds with the faith, eventually comes to realize this as well.

Jarrold directs Brideshead Revisited with great intelligence and sensitivity. Do see this movie—it will be 2 hours and 15 minutes of your time well spent.*-JR


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