Brideshead Revisited

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

The timeless theme of the individuals powerlessness in the face of family, religion, social standing and unrequited love is dusted off in Brideshead Revisited, the adaptation of the classic 1945 Evelyn Waugh novel. Impeccable production and costume design are prevalent in every frame, but director Julian Jarrold is not always effective in distinguishing the films dramatic concerns from those of previous period literary adaptations.

Set in England between the two world wars, Brideshead Revisited tells the story of aspiring painter Charles (Matthew Goode), a bright young Oxford student whose modest background makes him a bit of an oddity around his well-heeled classmates. But he soon attracts the fancy of Sebastian (Ben Whishaw, the Rimbaud Dylan in Todd Haynes Im Not There), a gay student who is a member of a privileged English family. Sebastians interest in Charles is sexual, but Charles seems divided in his desires between Sebastian and Sebastians gorgeous mansion home Brideshead.

Visiting the house and its amazing grounds for the first time, he meets Sebastians intimidating mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), and his sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell). Taken in by their wealth and impressive art collection but disinterested in Lady Marchmains rigid Catholic beliefs, atheist Charles finds himself seduced by Sebastian while being attracted to Julia. His decision to pursue Julia will open the door for love but also bring about strong repercussions for both himself and Lady Marchmains family.

Director Julian Jarrold, better known for lighter fare such as Kinky Boots and Becoming Jane, approaches his adaptation of Brideshead Revisited with a wistful, melancholy tone, opening the film with a voiceover from Charles during World War II as he thinks back with sadness about the events that will make up the bulk of the film. And screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock give the dialogue intelligence and occasionally sardonic humor so that the movie doesnt feel entombed in period solemnity.

But despite its strengths, which include several good performances, Brideshead Revisited falls victim to an overabundance of tastefulness. Period literary adaptations can sometimes suffer from this problem since the source material often focuses on the problems of high-society individuals, which requires stunning locations and production values that can overshadow the character drama. In addition, the presence of Emma Thompson cant help but call to mind her work in comparable James Ivory films, such as Howards End and The Remains of the Day. Unfortunately, this new Brideshead Revisited plays like a lesser version of those dramas, reminiscent of Ivorys scenes of love denied and families in crisis without adding new insights.

The film is strongest in its early section, when Charles and Sebastian are engaging in their ambiguous friendship/relationship. Matthew Goode, who has been stellar as very different characters in Match Point and The Lookout, possesses a serene blankness that works well for Charles, whose intentions are often unreadable to those around him. As Sebastian, Whishaw does a superb job of playing a man self-destructing in slow motion. The trick to Sebastian is making him seem both charming and insufferable at the same time, and Whishaw handles that dichotomy nicely, constantly twisting our sympathies for this spoiled, troubled, sensitive young man. With the aid of cinematographer Jess Hall, Jarrold frames their first days at Brideshead as idyllic and fleeting, creating a wonderful series of small moments that get their poignancy from the fact that they cannot last.

When Charles begins courting the initially reticent Julia, Brideshead Revisited treads shakier ground. Atwell isnt given sufficient screen time to show Julias transition from a caustic young woman who keeps Charles at bay to a smitten lover who must have him. The film flashes forward to reunite the separated lovers years later, and Atwells rapport with Goode is obvious. But when the film later requires a bittersweet resolution to their long courtship, her characters reasoning seems rushed and unmotivated, blunting the storys message about how religious beliefs can distract people from their hearts desires.

On the whole, this version of Brideshead Revisited feels a little too mannered and stately to be as poignant and tragic as it could have been–or as the TV series was back in the 1980s.

Production designer Alice Normington and costumer Eimer N Mhaoldomhnaigh make the film a proverbial feast for the eyes, giving plenty of reason for why Charles would fall in love with the affluence of Sebastians family. The young actors holds their own with Thompson, whose performance as the quietly imposing Lady Marchmain is effortless, but the films investigation of doomed love feels decidedly old hat.

To compare this Brideshead Revisited to the mansion for which the film takes its name, Jarrolds effort is sumptuously decorated and thoughtfully designed, but the place could use a little more life inside its walls.

Credits

Running time: 120 minutes

Director: Julian Jarrold
Production company: BBC Films, HanWay Films, 2 Entertain, Screen Yorkshire, Ecosse Films
US distribution: Miramax
Producers: Robert Bernstein, Douglas Rae, Kevin Loader
Executive producers: David M. Thompson, Nicole Finnan, Tim Haslam, Hugo Heppell
Co-producer: James Saynor
Screenplay: Andrew Davies, Jeremy Brock (based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh)
Cinematography: Jess Hall
Editor: Chris Gill
Production design: Alice Normington
Music: Adrian Johnston

Cast

Matthew Goode (Charles Ryder)
Ben Whishaw (Sebastian Flyte)
Hayley Atwell (Julia Flyte)
Emma Thompson (Lady Marchmain)
Michael Gambon (Lord Marchmain)
Greta Scacchi (Cara)
Jonathan Cake (Rex Mottram)
Patrick Malahide (Mr. Ryder)