Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Emma Thompson, Hayley Atwell, Greta Scacchi
Jeremy Brock, Andrew Davies
At first thought, it seems rather foolish to attempt to bring Evelyn Waugh's epic 1945 novel "Brideshead Revisited" to the big screen. After all, the book was already the subject of an 11-part British television series in 1981 and the likelihood of topping the series is minimal at best.
As directed by Julian Jarrold ("Becoming Jane," "Kinky Boots"), "Brideshead Revisited" is most definitely not on part with the award-winning 1981 television series. That said, it is a surprisingly satisfying and faithful reinventing of Waugh's novel that looks back to the waning days of the British aristocratic lifestyle of the 1920's and 1930's that largely went by the wayside once World War II arrived.
The film centers itself on the story of Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode, "Match Point"), a middle-class young man just entering Oxford University more based upon his academic record than a reflection of his financial status. In short order, Ryder has Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer") thrown into his life and the two quickly become infatuated with one another. Ryder quickly becomes awed by Sebastian's magnificent lifestyle and, more importantly, the family home called Brideshead Castle. Despite being a self-proclaimed atheist, Ryder is welcomed into the home by Sebastian's staunchly Roman Catholic mother (Emma Thompson) and his religiously conflicted sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell, "Cassandra's Dream").
Jarrold's film focuses more energy on the flirtations between both Sebastian and Ryder and Ryder and Julia, rather than the novel's overt religious themes.
While Jarrold centers the film largely on the character of Ryder, it is Ben Whishaw's compelling take on Sebastian that gives "Brideshead Revisited" its primary emotional resonance. In this adaptation, Sebastian is more flamboyant and openly gay while also being more intensely emotionally conflicted than in the original series. So, too, Atwell offers a finely disciplined performance as a young woman who is unquestionably attracted to Ryder while never being able to escape the grip of her mother and her God. It must be noted, however, that the scene in which she and Ryder finally consummate their attraction borders on laughably awkward.
This is not to imply, however, that Goode offers anything less than a strong performance as the artistic and driven Charles Ryder. Goode, however, offers a more refined interpretation of Ryder than did Jeremy Irons in the original television production. While this refinement fits the time period quite nicely, Goode's performance lacks the emotional depth that would explain why both Julia and Sebastian were so drawn to him and their mother so willing to trust him.
The strongest performance may very well belong to Emma Thompson, who manages to turn Lady Marchmain into both a disturbing yet surprisingly sympathetic woman who seems to genuinely care for her conflicted children even as she practically destroys them.
Filmed in the same castle as was the British television series, "Brideshead Revisited" is beautifully rendered and photographed with the exception of Jarrold's fondness for drawn out fadeaways.
Along with being more humanistic in its approach, Jarrold's "Bridehead Revisited" is, dare I say it, a touch funnier than its predecessor, though it remains just as likely that the humor isn't really intentional.
Adapted for the screen by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, passionate devotees of Waugh's novel are likely to lament what has been left out of this 135-minute feature film, whereas most will simply observe that certain aspects of the story seem a tad too abrupt and/or disconnected. While it is true that a considerable amount of material has been left out of the film, it is quite impressive what Davies and Brock managed to leave in.
Faced with the seemingly impossible task of bringing Waugh's novel faithfully to life, director Julian Jarrold has crafted a film that both beautifully and compellingly remains faithful to the spirit of Waugh's story while opening the door to a whole new generation of readers to the Waugh's writing and, perhaps, the 11-part television series that is now available on home video.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic