Nine hours shorter, Brideshead Revisited gets back to the source
Making notes in 1949 for a review of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, George Orwell wrote, "Waugh is about as good a novelist as one can be . . . while holding untenable opinions." That's a nice way of saying that Waugh, a world-class satirist of everyone from the rich down, was also a social-climbing snob, an anti-Semite and fascist sympathizer, a hater of modernity and, by extension, all things American.
That didn't deter the millions of Americans who wolfed down the British TV adaptation of Brideshead when it aired on PBS in 1981. Cruising right past the novel's crass Yank, who does business with the Nazis and sells his wife for a few paintings, just about every Anglophile I knew fell for the lovely country seat and its delicate-featured nobles dripping with diamonds, Catholic guilt and all. I never saw the point of stretching out this crisply written and none too long novel about England collapsing under the pressure of social change into a depressive 11-hour slog. A movie adaptation, even one passed through the pop filter of co-writer Andrew Davies, British TV's designated gatekeeper of all properties literary to the masses, sounds like much more fun. And though I can imagine Waugh rolling his eyes at the very idea of Brideshead Revisited as "a heartbreaking romantic epic," this remake is, often inadvertently, closer to the novel's spirit than the sepulchral television series.
Adapted by Davies with Jeremy Brock, Brideshead isn't much of a story. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a wan young student who comes from trade, is taken up at Oxford by the feverishly gay and increasingly alcoholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) and soon finds himself caught up in Sebastian's struggle with his intensely Catholic family. What it lacks in plot, however, is made up for in atmosphere and constant movement. As directed by Julian Jarrold, Brideshead Revisited-revisited is a less gloomy affair than its predecessor, boasting better stately homes and gardens bathed in a warm chocolate glow, colorful trips abroad to Venice and Morocco, a marketably youthful cast, and broad winks at the novel's repressed homosexual attraction between Charles and Sebastian.
If the movie strives and fails to redirect the erotic flow to the heterosexual love between Charles Ryder and Sebastian's sister, Julia Flyte, so, too, did Waugh, almost certainly a closeted homosexual inhibited by his conversion to Catholicism. As Julia, Hayley Atwell lacks the TV version's tortured inner radiance, and when she and Charles finally rip off their clothes aboard a cruise liner, you want to laugh, or look away. In the end, nothing that goes on in this youthful triangle proves as compelling as the great, sick love story between the teddy-clutching Sebastian (Whishaw is show-stoppingly queen-y and heart-stoppingly vulnerable) and his mummy, an ice floe nicely understated by Emma Thompson as a woman at once energized and doomed by her devotion to Catholic orthodoxy.
Waugh, whose cruelty to others was legendary, was merciless in taking down this rigidly controlling woman and the son she destroys. But the truly malevolent power of Brideshead Revisited is his identification with what she stood for — a literal reading of the Vatican texts, the preservation of ancient tradition, and keeping her snooty class free of contamination by interlopers like Charles — and Waugh himself. Waugh turns a pitiless, accusing gaze on Charles' unacknowledged motives for worming his way into the Marchmain household, and makes him over as a species of villain. You can't read this switcheroo in the 21st century without revulsion at the self-laceration with which Waugh punished himself for his own pent-up sexuality and his yearning to join a class he was not born into, and at his retreat into unbending religious orthodoxy. Still, though Brideshead Revisited the movie is far from deep, you have to admire the way it refrains from seizing the day for a post-modern lecture on the perils of fundamentalism, and confines itself to the disturbing vision of Evelyn Waugh.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.