Revisiting Brideshead

Jan. 17, 2009
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Evelyn Waugh’s meditation on faith and its absence, and the varieties of love and desire, found a new audience in the 1980s through a British television production of Brideshead Revisited. Readers of Waugh’s novel and fans of the lengthy miniseries will find some of their favorite bits missing from the 2008 film adaptation, out now on DVD. British director Julian Jarrold can be commended, however, for intelligently condensing an emotionally rich story spanning two decades into a two-hour movie. Although some of my favorite lines were edited, the main themes and memorable scenes for the most part remain.

The film is arranged as a flashback within a flashback, but the story’s genesis occurs at Oxford in the 1920s. The protagonist, Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode in the role that launched Jeremy Irons), is a first-year student and the uncertain product of a penny-pinching if prosperous, emotionally grim and rationalistic middle-class father. Oxford in those years was a sheltered garden where eccentricity flourished. Charles glimpses the first love of his life, Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), reclined in a punt on the canal that flows through the university, clutching a teddy bear and sipping champagne from a flute. One of Charles’ tragedies is that his second and final love, Julia (Hayley Atwell), was Sebastian’s sister.

Unsure of himself and trying to fit in, exploring emotions and yearnings he may never have known before, Charles is overawed when Sebastian brings him to the family estate, Brideshead, a sprawling fiefdom dotted with fountains crowned with neo-classical sculpture and dominated by a domed manor large enough to seat both houses of parliament. Charles gawks like a first-time visitor to New York.

Unlike Charles’ upbringing, which tried to reduce the complexity of existence to a logical equation, the Flytes are guided by a faith that makes claims on their every thought, word and deed. Sebastian’s family members are Roman Catholic, a religion forced underground in Britain during the Protestant Reformation and whose adherents were finally granted full civil rights only a century before the story begins. The memory of persecution, of practicing their religion in secret, only hardened the family’s resolve.

The erotic life Sebastian led was beyond the bounds of Catholic propriety. An acknowledged sinner in his moral universe, his conscience is consoled by confession and dulled by drink. By all appearances Julia is thoroughly modern, driving her own car and propositioning Charles with the line, “Be an angel and light me one.” He gently places the cigarette between her open, moistened lips. The family is complex to say the least. Their mother, Lady Marchmain (played with too much chill by Emma Thompson), is a soft-spoken but firm paragon of aristocratic and Catholic rectitude. Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), however, fled England years earlier for the palazzo in Venice he shares with his Italian mistress.

Waugh’s novel was suffused with regret, sadness over time’s passage, for loss of innocence and loss of everything that once held the world together. Although beautifully visualized and generally well acted by a cast of veterans and newcomers, the new Brideshead falls short by viewing the novel through a limited lens. The film sees only the personal tragedy of Charles and the Flytes, leaving Waugh’s wider implications about a society in decline outside the frame.


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