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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Those who have not seen the 1981 Granada television miniseries about
the aristocratic English Catholic Marchmain family, their spiritual
torments, and their conflicted friend, Charles Ryder, may be at an
advantage in watching this new adaptation. That series was superb and
took the time to do more than justice to the satirical Evelyn Waugh's
uncharacteristically solemn and lengthy 1945 novel. This film version,
much briefer than the miniseries but not exactly short at 135 minutes,
has one advantage: it shows off the plot in sharp outline.
The miniseries may actually blur that basic element. It was hypnotic, rolling on from week to week for those who first saw it gathering an accumulation of nostalgia and melancholy, beautifully mounted and graced by the likes of John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, and Stéphane Audran. It also put Jeremy Irons on the map in the central role of Charles, and by his own admission made him "fall out of love with jeans" through wearing the elegant clothes of a well-turned-out young man of the 1920's. The miniseries can take the time to develop important minor characters. The book is an elaborate portrait of a generation and an era. Waugh wrote short witty novels mostly. But this time, writing about wealth and grandeur and Catholicism, he waxes poetic and goes into near-Proustian detail.
Sebastian's grand family draws the awestruck middle-class Charles in and eventually spits him out, leaving him shattered, but lastingly impressed by the power of the Marchmains' Catholic faith. As the tale opens (in all versions), he's reminiscing about it all much later as an army officer at the end of World War II ironically posted at Brideshead, the glorious estate where Sebastian grew up--a place Charles came to know intimately even though it was never fully accessible to him.
Maybe Waugh in his novel was more concerned with the nostalgia for a prewar life he imagined as splendid and carefree, for a class to which he aspired, and more self-consciously dwelling on his infatuation with Catholicism, to which he was a convert. But the story, as we see in this new film, turns on a kind of love triangle--one heavy-laden with sexual and spiritual conflict.
Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) and Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) enter into an intense romantic and alcoholic friendship when Charles comes for his first year at Oxford. The film carries this a bit further than either the novel or the TV version, showing the two handsome young men not only often affectionately and playfully arm in arm but in an intimate bathroom scene and once, anyway, sharing a lingering drunken kiss. This despite the fact that a relative sternly warned Charles to avoid "sodomites" when he first arrived at university. Whishaw (of 'Perfume' and 'I'm Not There') has a touching, wispy, vulnerable quality that distinguishes him from the TV Anthony Andrews, whose Sebastian is more brassy, slick, confident and social. When Charles meets Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwall in the film; the impossibly elegant Diana Quick in the miniseries), and lights a cigarette for her in a car, he immediately hears, in the words of the novel, echoed in the TV narration, "a thin bat's squeak of sexuality," and the equation changes. He begins to desire Julia. Apart from her unmistakable allure she's a way for Charles to possess the Marchmain world more completely. This, especially in the film, immediately clouds the relationship with Sebastian, who grows cold, and simultaneously sinks deeper into dipsomania.
In the miniseries there is more time for Charles's profound infatuation with his aristocratic young Catholic friend and his magnificent world to sink in and for Sebastian's decline into alcoholism to unwind with slow, horrible inevitability. The latter is memorably described in the book (repeated in the TV narration) as feeling like "a blow, expected, repeated, falling on a bruise, with no smart or shock of surprise, only a dull and sickening pain and the doubt whether another one like it could be borne." It has to be rushed a bit in the film. But the process isn't falsified, only made more clear.
Their mother, Lady Marchmain (film, Emma Thompson; TV, Claire Bloom) at first finds Charles sensible and polite, a good influence for the dissolute and sexually wayward Sebastian. But she can't bend Charles to her will. It emerges that Lord Marchmain (film, Michael Gambon; TV, Laurence Olivier) has long ago fled from his wife's control to Venice and lives with a mistress, Cara (film, Greta Schacchi; TV, Stéphane Audran). A visit to Venice leads to kisses with Julia and also introduces Charles to another equally intoxicating kind of beauty--besides which in Italy, everybody's Catholic, but as Cara points out, of a more relaxed sort than the cloying Lady Marchmain's. Charles can't have Julia as long as Lady Marchmain is around. As circumstances turn out, their idyll is brief, and happens after Charles is married and a successful painter. Sebastian has wound up with a weak German man in Morocco, in terrible health, a saintly drunkard. Julia and Lord Marchmain have last minute returns to their faith and Charles is left out in the cold.
Viewing all three versions, book, TV, screen, one sees the story isn't about Charles or about anybody really. It's about temptation. It's about the world between the wars, through eyes clouded by longing. The adaptation is very creditable. It shows the appeal of the story. Those who are entranced by it ought to read Waugh's book and rent DVD's of the Granada miniseries--which was about the best thing ever done for television. It delivers long passages from the book verbatim. Waugh was best in his short witty early satires but he turns many a good phrase in this, his most popular (and for a while his own favorite) book. Then he rejected it, and one can see why. Its sentimentality is so unlike him at his best. But it adapts well.
The greatness of the original Brideshead Revisited was in the luxury of being able to transpose a very complicated emotional and intellectual book into words. It succeeded in this, but only just, due to superb direction, photography and script which, even in its sparseness, only just allowed the successful transition to film. The problem with anything shorter is that, if it took Mortimer so many episodes to get it right, then there are very few writers who could even get near in under 4 hours, if that. So lets stop beating about the bush. This is a sound reproduction of the calender plot but after that it is not Brideshead Revisited. Call it by another name and I will laud it. It brings in a strong homosexual element and a early sexual attraction between Charles Ryder and Miss Flyte. With that everything becomes unbalanced. Motivations change. The beauty of the original is that it hinted at ????something (a je ne sais quoi) and it was that and the ever strengthening Catholic awareness of family that made this film so fascinating. The original's masterpiece was the script supported by the cine photography. That has been lost. But taken as is, a pretty and interesting film which seems to be loosely based on an early fifties work by Waugh.
Is this film a worthy interpretation of "Brideshead Revisited"? Well,
up to a point, Lord Copper, as another one of Evelyn Waugh's characters
was wont to say.
First, scriptwriter Andrew Davies, a past master of adaptation of great and not-so great literary works, has put the focus on the Charles and Julia love story rather than the Charles and Sebastian 'romantic friendship' as Cara, Lord Marchmain's Italian mistress puts it. The religious aspect is dealt with almost incidentally.
Second, Lady Marchmain, as played by Emma Thompson, is a very grim person with total emotional control over her children and whose particular Christian beliefs means that she is indifferent to their suffering as to her this life is a mere precursor to the glorious afterlife the same attitude as a 9/11 hi-jacker in fact. She has none of the sweetness that Claire Bloom brought to the 1981 TV series.
Third, some of the performances owe a good deal to those in the TV series, especially Matthew Goode as Charles who has an uncanny likeness to Jeremy Irons. And of course Castle Howard reprises its role as Brideshead. Some characters were reduced to ciphers; for example Bridey who played by Simon Jones stole several scenes in 1981 but the part is reduced to a non-entity here. Michael Gambon, a consummate actor, gives us a new take on Lord Marchmain to compare with Lawrence Olivier's earlier version.
Overall, though, I was left with the impression this film has not much to say which is new. Like the recent feature film version of "Pride and Prejudice", it gives a broad outline of the story but misses out much of the rich context provided by the minor characters. Oh, read the book instead.
I have never read the book or seen the miniseries, so my experience
wasn't clouded by already existing expectations and assumptions of the
characters. Instead I was awaiting a first, and therefore unbiased look
into the world of Brideshead.
As a film, it is okay bordering on good and solid. The performances are strong enough to keep the audience interested, but they do not keep us enthralled. The leads are savvy and sexy in their own rights, but they lack true appeal as performers. They can come off as rather dull in certain scenes, but in others they pull out a subtle presence that is called for in intimate, or more emotion scenes. This inconsistence was bothersome and hindered the overall telling of the story. The one presence that is felt, but is far too short is that of Emma Thompson. As the matriarchal head of the family, she is brutal and works well with the one dimensional writing she was given. If they had focused more on her, we would have been able to understand the tortured minds of Julia and Sebastian better. Instead they have Julia and Sebastian describe her to the audience, which keeps us from getting close enough to realize what deformed her mind to begin with.
Charles is, at times to weak and unsure to be accepted as someone we want to see happy. We end up being unsure of his character's intention, and not in a mysterious, purposeful way, but in a, "the film-making is too unclear" way. Is Charles just a social climber whose dreams are dashed by his wants and Atheist ways? Or is he a moral soul lost in the pull of Brideshead's condemning Catholic trappings? This is the major flaw to the film, Charles is never exposed.
Small framing problems and out-of-style shots hampered the visual appeal, but with that aside, the visuals are very lush and the score complements some well placed montages to give the viewer a true sense of the desired never-ending summer Charles and Sebastian so desperately dream after.
If you like British tales of class and religion, or period films, this one is not a letdown. It is nothing new, but nothing terrible either. I recommend it if this is your sort of thing, I was not disappointed, but I wasn't blown away.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I've just come from the Canadian premiere of Brideshead Revisited, a
story that is a great mark along the journey of my life.
I was 21 when I saw the TV series on CBC in January/February, 1981. I was nine months away from beginning my own great adventure in the world, traveling through the British Isles and Europe for the first time. Young -- only two years older than Charles and Sebastian when we first meet them -- thirsting for experience, longing for love and romance -- the kinds of love and romance reserved for the hearts and minds of youth -- the story made an indelible impression on me. I identified with those two young men. My heart overflowed when theirs did and ached when theirs did.
And what an impression that series made in Britain and North America. It set fashions for the decade on both sides of the Atlantic. Both in clothing and hairstyles. Hair salons posted ads in newspapers and signs in their windows: "Get the Brideshead look". For men, 3-plaited trousers -- linen in summer and flannels in winter -- became de rigeur (sp?) for both men and women, it taught us to take the loosely-woven cotton sweaters that fashion suddenly offered us to tie them about our necks. It ushered in the want for society style and demonstrable excess that demarcated the 1980s. Very few stories, resurrected, make such an enormous mark on an era.
Tonight, I saw a well-crafted, truncated and changed -- but most acceptably changed -- film of the story, through 48-year-old eyes.Older and wiser, I still ached for Charles and Sebastian, but now from an understanding uncle's point-of-view, if you will. Like a hardened Charles, as he reflects back during the Second World War, I, too, am more world-weary and hardened. Older, I better understand the lessons of the story. But also, after seeing the film, I am left, like Charles in the War on discovering he's once again at Brideshead, reflecting wistfully on my youth. On what could have been and might have been had I made different choices and decisions. Not regretfully, but wistfully. It brought into my life a remembrance of and longing for those exquisite feelings of romance and love reserved for youth and without which my middle age has proceeded.
In 1981, I was the Charles of Oxford. Today, I am the Charles of the War. Even older.
Will this movie change the fashions, style and manner of today? No. The times are not right for it. Nevertheless, I highly recommend it. Then find the TV series on DVD and read the book, if you care to. Each is a 20th Century masterpiece.
It's attributed to just about everybody - from Ginger Rogers to Milan
Kundera - and it sounds so right: "There are no small parts, only small
If you want proof and a real understanding of the adage, revisit "Brideshead Revisited," and behold the miracle of Emma Thompson's Lady Marchmain, sucking the life out of anything and anybody she touches, and Michael Gambon's delightfully dissolute Lord Marchmain. She has about 10 minutes on the screen, he perhaps four, and yet their characters will follow you out of the theater, and stay with you at length.
Thompson's work is especially dazzling because the mean, sanctimonious character is so clearly alien to the actress (in fact, I suspected miscasting when I first heard of her assignment) and also as the character is so exaggerated, almost a caricature. And yet, Thompson gives the challenge her all, and walks away with it; the performance has Best Supporting Actress written all over it.
It's difficult to believe that the man you see as Marchmain is the same actor who was the "Singing Detective" (of the superb BBC series, not the Robert Downey Jr. mishap). Gambon has a range as wide as all outdoors, and you never ever see effort in the performance. His amiable Marchmain - subtly hinting at a complex character under the surface - has a physical similarity to Gambon's Uncle Vanya on the London stage, but otherwise, it's a unique creation.
What else is there to this new "edition" of "Brideshead"? A great deal, but only if you're among those who missed both Evelyn Waugh's novel and the wonderful Granada TV realization 27 long years ago - Irons! Gielgud! Olivier! - how can you compete with that? So, if it's a first-time visit, see the movie by all means; if you can recite lines from the book or the TV series, you can survive without the new version.
In 135 minutes, the film is handling well what the TV series did so completely in - yes - 13 HOURS. Obviously, except for the basic story line (script by Jeremy Brock, of "The Last King of Scotland"), this is a different kind of animal, still "leisurely" enough, but unable to luxuriate in the smallest details as the series did. The director is Julian Jarrold, and he is doing far better than in his recent "Becoming Jane," keeps the story moving in a smooth fashion.
As to the leading roles in the film, they are all well acted, but without great impact. Matthew Goode is Charles Ryder, the focal character; Ben Whishaw is the slightly over-flamboyant Sebastian Flyte (who needs understating more than exaggerating - Anthony Andrews' performance in the TV series was exactly right); Hayley Atwell is Sebastian's sister (and rival for Charles' affection).
One amazing thing about "Brideshead" is how this story from a different time, about characters from a different world, remains interesting and meaningful. It's almost as if Waugh's work was bulletproof - not that these filmmakers were less than respectful to the author. A better test would be a Eurotrash opera version, heaven forfend.
Here is the ultimate definition of cowardice. Mr. Jarrold apparently
wanted to make a period piece but didn't have the courage to actually
write his own stuff from scratch, so he stole character names and
isolated scenes from Evelyn Waugh's classic, then superimposed his own
much less interesting, much more banal story. The crime is that the
Waugh estate allowed this piece of tripe to be released under the name
How far does this thing go from the original? Well, let's see. Waugh wrote a profound meditation on the power of memory, the inevitable tragedies of life and love, and the mystery of faith. Jarrold gives us a not-very-titillating bisexual love triangle with a pasted on last reel reveal of the main character's shallow motivation. Waugh's characters were rich, multi-layered creations. Jarrold's are plasticine clichés with no depth, no recognizable motivation, and no growth . . . hell, they don't even age. In the 15 or so years in which Jarrold sets his story his characters look EXACTLY the same at the end as they did at the beginning.
One has to wonder what Jarrold was thinking If he didn't want to make something even remotely resembling Waugh's work, why use its title and steal a handful of its scenes? Was it just that he didn't think he could sell "Last Love Triangle in 1920s Venice?"
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It is possible that there are SPOILERS in this review, although to be
frank, I don't see how anything could truly spoil something already so
To make a 2 1/2 hour movie out of Brideshead Revisited, particularly in view of the utter perfection of the 1981 Granada production, was folly. The only reason I saw it last week was to see exactly how big a mess they had made of it. I assume that the critics who are raving about it are a) bored to tears by everything else on the screen at the moment, b) toying with the public to see how gullible it is, or c) have not bothered either to read the book or see the real version. Or (Is it possible?) they really thought it was good.
Not only are the best characters reduced to mere walk-ons (Ryder Sr., Anthony Blanche, and especially Cordelia), but someone in charge repeatedly saw fit to change the plot in ways that sap from that haunting story all complexity and subtlety in favor of bite-sized morsels of easy-to-swallow banality. I recognized virtually none of Waugh's original dialogue; all of his lovely lyrical writing (much of which was Charles's voice-over as he told us the story) is gone, as are countless little moments that served to deepen these people and our understanding of and sympathy for them.
Lady Marchmain, even in the hands of Emma Thompson, is reduced to a cardboard virago -- a pity, since Ms. Thompson, had she been given the chance (time, script), might have done Claire Bloom proud as the manipulative yet heartbreaking matriarch. As to the other actors -- one does not envy anyone asked to step into roles that were brought to life by Irons, Andrews, Bloom, Olivier, Gielgud, et al. On top of that, and considering the paucity of plot and character development they were given to work with, they were adequate.
Do yourself a big favor and wait till it comes to TV, and in the meantime, treat yourself to the real thing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Naturally, comparisons to the classic 1981 miniseries are unavoidable.
Because of the choice to use the same location (Castle Howard) for
Brideshead in the film as the mini, they become even more obvious.
With just over two hours, a lot of the story gets chopped out, along with a lot of the minor characters. In fact, the film is basically about a fifteen year long love triangle: Sebastian, Charles, and Julia. All of the aspects of the Flytes as a dying class (replaced by the Rex Mottrams of the world) and the Catholic themes are practically written out.
Perhaps the single most pernicious edit was the fact that Charles' conversion to Catholicism was edited from the film. Without that conversion, the whole Catholic element becomes just an impediment to the Charles-Julia relationship. Possibly the worst effect coming from this choice is that the film kind of drifts to a close without any closure, when it returns Charles to Brideshead in 1944.
On the plus side, Emma Thompson is appropriately manipulative and domineering as Lady Marchmain. Also, the cinematography is top-notch. Curiously enough, however, there is far less star power in the film than in the miniseries. Granada TV was supposedly using the mini-series to flagship their "quality" programming right before a license renewal, and they got some names: John Gielgud, Lawrence Olivier, Jeremy Irons. The new film has Emma Thompson.
Another problem with the short time involved is that the characters are not allowed to develop the same way they were in the 1981 mini. The character who suffers most from this is Sebastian. Anthony Andrews' Sebastian was a brat who got away with being a brat because he could turn on the charm and make anybody love him, at least in the beginning. Ben Whitshaw's Sebastian is still a brat, but he is not shown as the great charmer. The funny thing is, sometimes when they say the same lines, Andrews came off as witty, Whitshaw comes off as whiny.
Along those lines, Bridey is essentially a non-character. Simon "Arthur Dent" Jones' magnificently understated performance as an upper-class twit is sorely missed.
Also, in the miniseries, it is obvious that Charles falls first for Sebastian, and then for the entire Flyte family (except Bridey). In the film, one could get the impression that Charles is more in love with the building, than either Julia or Sebastian.
This isn't to say that Brideshead Revisited was a bad film; it was a good (but not great) film. However, not unlike film versions of Pride and Prejudice, there is too much Waugh for 135 minutes. In the case of this film, dropping both the class and Catholicism aspects in large part makes a good film, but not necessarily one fully in touch with Waugh's themes.
Having seen the 1981 mini-series of the same name I have to admit that I am spoiled on what the way this movie SHOULD have turned out. The 1981 mini-series captured everything from the book, including the true purpose of the movie - as a glimpse into the complicated lives of a group of English high society citizens, their Catholic religion, and the very subtle way they communicate strong points to each other. This last point, the subtlety, is of highest importance because the character development that comes along with it makes the original mini-series. The movie version has none of this. The characters are just crude summations and dim reflections of the complex beings presented in the mini-series. The entire point of the book is completely lost by this rushed compilation of scenes. None of the characters are developed thoroughly, even the main ones. The audience never connects with the lives of these people and certainly isn't enveloped in their world. I don't really have one good thing to say about this movie... it is an insult to the book and mini-series. I highly recommend that you see the mini-series, despite it being 11+ hours long, because only with that investment of time do you really see the original intention of this story.
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