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The New Brideshead Revisited Adaptation

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Miramax)

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Thursday, July 31, 2008


Brideshead Revisited
Directed by Julian Jarrold
(Miramax)

Reviewed by Justin Stewart

“Simple, creamy, English charm” is how one character dismisses another’s paintings, made in Central American jungles but still poisoned with that fatal regional quality that “spots and kills anything it touches.” It would be natural to expect the same curse of safe mediocrity on this updated adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s most sentimental novel, from the director of the simple Kinky Boots and creamy Becoming Jane. Add to that a screenwriter, Andrew Davies, who has proven to be a one-man classic English lit adaptation factory and the possibility of a simplifying cinematic abridgment seemed extreme.

Fortunately, the literal visual version, of the kind that Davies has spun out for Bleak House and Fanny Hill, was already made in 1981 for British television. Fantastically popular both in England and in the US (where it aired on PBS), the series won acclaim with its faith to the source and an incredible tally of performances by a stall of acting royalty (Irons, Olivier, Gielgud, etc.) That such a well-known and exhaustive version was already made might’ve been a deterrent, but in many ways it liberates this Brideshead. The 2008 version doesn’t attempt anything radical, or fatuously serve it up as “more relevant now than ever,” but its neat elisions, heightened pathos and oft-ravishing cinematography make it a more than justifiable reworking of a largely metaphorical story that was always about something around and above the particulars of its plot in the first place.

Waugh’s novel is the rare nostalgic romance in his largely comic and satirical bibliography. He later wrote that he found Brideshead’s opulent indulgences “distasteful” on “a full stomach,” but the lean epic is heartbreaking and resonant, deserving of its place on best-of-the-century lists. It is concerned with interbellum England, her withering optimism and myopic (but admirable) cling to tradition. It’s about Catholicism, family, homosexuality, class, alcoholism and art. It’s specifically about an aspiring painter named Charles Ryder who, during his first year at Oxford, falls in love with the son, daughter, castle and mystique of the wealthy family Marchmain of Brideshead. Ryder’s the looking glass through which we view the family’s splendor and decay, but he’s more richly developed and less trustworthy, than similar narrator/vessels like Marlow or Nick Carraway.

Matthew Goode, the charming snob in blue jeans from Match Point, plays Ryder here. It’s a modest performance, more of a blank than Jeremy Irons’s far-ranging turn, but he handsomely covers the bases of Ryder’s competing sweetness and insincerity. Ben Whishaw as Sebastian, the doomed sot and tragic heart of the story, is more troublesome. The Perfume star’s spindly delicacy and forthright homosexuality make you miss Anthony Andrews’s heartier portrayal. Whishaw is Sebastian chipped down to the character’s self-martyring, symbolic essence. When his mother, the cold God of the Marchmain clan, returns home, interrupting his blissful, carefree summer with Charles, Whishaw’s pathetic “It’s Mummy…” says as much as several pages of Waugh prose.

Emma Thompson is “Mummy,” and though she dominates the posters, her impact is limited to a few scenes. The filmmakers foreground the relationship between Charles and Sebastian’s sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell), inserting her into places where she wasn’t in the novel. That the youthful homo-curious romance fascinates more than Charles and Julia is simply a fact of the book. It gives parts of the movie’s latter half the same sense of tediousness that crept into the miniseries, but the visual briskness and acting prop it up. The film’s revisions are artful, save for an awkward scene in a church after a decadent parade in Venice; several characters just happen to end up there together, acting all tortured and religious.

If anyone is to be criticized for excessive creaminess, it’s composer Adrian Johnston, who ladles out hot caramel organ dirges and molasses orchestration. His score is a crosscurrent against the crisp visuals, but there’s cliché there, too (awed looks at the castle out of car windows, “don’t speak” finger-to-lips motions). “It’s different in Italy, not so much guilt — we do what our heart tells us,” proclaims Lord Marchmain’s mistress, but most of the dialogue is less idiotic, as it recreates or exists comfortably next to Waugh’s. Brideshead Revisited surely bests Bright Young Things, Stephen Fry’s dreary (while attempting to be buoyant and madcap) adaptation of the author’s Vile Bodies. Its freshness is closer to the well-received Pride & Prejudice from 2005.

It’s easy to overstate the varied accomplishments here because of how badly it might have gone. That it landed somewhere between adequate and excellent is satisfying enough. Superlatives don’t apply, nor accusations of denigration. Julian Jarrold has made a highly watchable adaptation of a great novel, with more than the requisite “cinematic” touches that justify it as something independently worthy. Isn’t that enough? It might depend on something as arbitrary as the fullness of your stomach.

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