Judge Ben Saylor feels no guilt whatsoever about his criticisms of this film.
Our review of Brideshead Revisited (2008), published January 28th, 2012, is also available.
Love is not ours to control.
Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited was adapted into a much-loved ITV miniseries in 1981, with a cast including Jeremy Irons, Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom. Nearly 30 years after that adaptation aired, we have a new, much shorter take on Waugh's tale.
Facts of the Case
In pre-World War II England, middle-class aspiring painter Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode, The Lookout), begins his first term at Oxford, where he soon befriends the eccentric Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw, I'm Not There), a member of an aristocratic family that resides at the resplendent Brideshead. Charles soon falls under the sway of Brideshead and its inhabitants, particularly Sebastian's lovely sister Julia (Hayley Atwell, The Duchess).
But beneath the Flytes' veneer of class and respectability lies a deep sense of repression and guilt, instilled into both Sebastian and Julia by their mother, the devout Catholic Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson, Nanny McPhee). Lady Marchmain's all-pervading influence not only drives Sebastian to drink and despair, but also severely affects Charles and Julia's relationship.
Spoilers to follow Beginning promisingly but eventually devolving into a ho-hum doomed love story, Brideshead Revisited is something of a tease, and certainly a missed opportunity. The film doesn't work largely because of its script, credited to Andrew Davies (who wrote the much-lauded 1994 Pride and Prejudice miniseries) and Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland). I haven't read Waugh's novel, but even still, in watching the film the writers' compression is readily apparent; the 1981 miniseries is about approximately nine hours longer than this version.
Compression is most harmful when it comes to the film's characters, almost none of whom are sufficiently developed. We never learn much about Charles, and instead have to rely upon the generally unfavorable judgments of him passed by other characters in the film to form impressions of him, which is confusing because we haven't really seen anything to make us believe that Charles is the selfish, opportunistic cad that those around him seem to think he is. By the time Julia bitterly asks Charles what he really wants in life (she seems to think he just wants Brideshead and the material wealth and high status that come with it), you realize you have no clue what the answer is. It doesn't help that Charles is largely passive and says little, and Matthew Goode-who is a fine actor-can't really do much with the material he's given.
Julia fares little better. An icy, vapid beauty for the first half of the film, she suddenly transforms into a passionate but guilt-wracked siren in the second half, when she and Charles embark on a stormy affair. Leaving aside the fact that this metamorphosis doesn't make a lot of sense, Julia is never very interesting or sympathetic, making it hard to care about her emotional maelstroms toward the end of the film. To make matters worse, despite clear effort from both Goode and Atwell, the couple doesn't really have much chemistry.
Sebastian is the most fleshed-out character in the film, due mostly to the writers' decision to make the character gay (in contrast to what was apparently left more ambiguous in the novel). The writers and director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) never seriously attempt to develop a love triangle between Charles, Sebastian and Julia, although the two men share a wine-soaked smooch. Eventually, the writers grow tired of the character, abandoning him completely by the film's third act. It's clear right from when Charles first catches sight of Julia that that relationship is the only one that will be focused on, which is too bad, especially since both characters are so poorly developed, and because Whishaw is quite good as Sebastian.
Most crucially, however, the film fails with its slighting of Lady Marchmain. From watching the film, she seems to be the linchpin of her children's suffering, but her character is barely in the movie. After only a few scenes with her, we have to take Sebastian and Julia's word for it that she's ruined them both forever; this is a movie where there's a lot more telling than showing. At least Emma Thompson keeps her scenes interesting with her interpretation of the character. Thompson is an actress who brings a natural warmth and kindness to many of her roles, and it's fascinating to watch her use her gracious exterior to thinly disguise the rigid, domineering matriarch lurking beneath.
As a consequence of the filmmakers' focus on Charles and Julia, other, more potentially interesting ideas are left largely unexplored. One example is the relationship between Charles and Sebastian, but the biggest miss is where faith is concerned. Charles is an atheist, but the filmmakers are more or less perfunctory about that fact and don't do anything interesting with it. The film's treatment of faith is basically reduced to Julia and Sebastian bemoaning the Catholic guilt instilled into them by their mother. This means that by the end of the film, when Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) makes a deathbed conversion to Catholicism that pretty much seals the deal in terms of keeping Charles and Julia apart, the impact is not nearly what it should be. It also doesn't help that Marchmain only appears in a few scenes and only seems to be in the movie as a contrivance that prompts Julia to end her romance with Charles.
Miramax Films' DVD release of Brideshead Revisited boasts a very nice transfer that handles the film's rich, diverse color palette quite nicely. The sound is also good for the most part, although dialogue seems a bit muted at times. For extras, a feature commentary with Jarrold, Brock and producer Kevin Loader is included, along with seven deleted scenes and a making-of featurette. The commentary contains lots of interesting information about the making of the film and what went into the project from both a technical and creative standpoint. The deleted scenes, which together run about 11 minutes, all come with commentary from the same trio. The making-of featurette is more or less standard fare, although I liked the footage of the actors and crew filming scenes. A collection of previews rounds out the disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Whatever its faults in writing and acting, Brideshead Revisited is undoubtedly a very beautiful-looking film. Jarrold and cinematographer Jess Hall work hard to make this look like a polished production, and it shows in the contrasts between Charles' drab home and the bright hues of Oxford, as well as the impressive camerawork on display within Brideshead (played by Castle Howard) itself. Jarrold also makes skillful use of slow motion on occasion (although sometimes it feels overdone, as when Charles and Sebastian remove dust cloths from statues at Brideshead), and there are some nice camera moves as well.
In addition, praise must be given to Adrian Johnston's lush, romantic score, which, along with the visuals goes a long way toward making the film easier to watch. The composition that plays during a rather silly (albeit well shot) montage of Charles and Sebastian together at Brideshead is particularly beautiful.
Brideshead Revisited boasts some decent acting, along with very striking visuals, but is ultimately compromised by a reductive script that isn't as thematically interesting as it could be.
The film itself is guilty, but the DVD package is free to revisit Brideshead or wherever it wishes to go.
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