Brideshead Revisited

Director    Julian Jarrold
Starring    Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell, Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson
Release    25 JUL (US) 3 OCT (UK)    Certificate 12A
2 stars


6th October 2008

And so, Brideshead has once again been revisited. The tale of crumbling aristocracy, Catholic fanaticism and a magnificently dysfunctional family in the days before everyone was trotting off to therapy.

Charles Ryder (Goode), "a painter from Paddington", is mesmerised by charismatic Sebastian Flyte (Whishaw) when they meet at university in Oxford. He quickly becomes embroiled with Sebastian's aristocratic family, entranced by the glamour and desperate to be accepted into their world. It becomes increasingly obvious that there are not just cracks, but gaping caverns beneath their genteel surface. At its epicentre is stern matriarch Lady Marchmain (Thompson), instilling unhealthy levels of self-loathing and Catholic guilt into sons Sebastian and 'Bridey' (Ed Stoppard) and daughter Julia (Hayley Atwell). Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) meanwhile has made his getaway and shacked up with his mistress in Venice.

The film will inevitably be scrutinised in light of both Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel and the 1981 ITV adaptation. By any measure, the film version will not come out on top. Waugh's novel captured the mood of the nation during the inter-war years. There is a hunger, almost greed, evident in his work. In a literal sense, the book is preoccupied with excessive gorging of food and drink, but also with the young character's yearning for experience prompted by the relief of surviving one World War and the fear that another may be looming. The TV adaptation articulated this with its leisurely pace and sumptuous detail, practically drooling over the landscape, finery and excesses of the upper class. The film, meanwhile, gallops through the events of the novel, butchering the early Oxford years down to a mere stump. All sense of opulence and languid pleasure is lost.

To look on the bright side, at last, a British period drama without a whiff of Keira Knightley - turns out other English actresses do exist after all. Hayley Atwell, Knightley's co-star from The Duchess, takes centre stage as Julia Flyte, putting in an admirable performance oozing 1920s chic. Matthew Goode is present in practically every scene of the film and gives a solid performance as Charles Ryder, very much in keeping with Jeremy Irons' take on the character. Goode conveys Ryder's questionable motives - is he the plaything of the Flytes, or is he toying with them?

Gambon makes an excellent ageing rogue as the wayward Lord Marchmain, but Emma Thompson is just a bit too Emma Thompson to bring the required level of manipulative haughtiness to the role of Lady Marchmain. Ben Whishaw makes an interesting Sebastian, darker and more complex than Anthony Andrew's angelic 1981 outing. Whishaw comes into his own as Sebastian spirals into self-destructive alcoholism, particularly as he lies wasting away in a Moroccan hospital.

Julian Jarrold's Brideshead is essentially boiled down to a love triangle between Charles, Julia and Sebastian. It is painfully clear to the viewer that Sebastian loves Charles but Charles loves Julia. One of the most intriguing things about Waugh's novel is the ambiguity surrounding the relationship between Charles and Sebastian: it is hinted at that they are lovers but there is always uncertainty. Here, all the ambiguity of the book is stripped away and the narrative is spelled out and shouted from the roof tops. Writers Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock clearly had an audience of imbeciles in mind when they led their bull through a china shop.

Follow us on Twitter @The_Shiznit for more fun features, film reviews and occasional commentary on what the best type of crisps are.
We are using Patreon to cover our hosting fees. So please consider chucking a few digital pennies our way by clicking on this link. Thanks!

Share This