Brideshead Revisited (2008)

Hayley Atwell, Ben Whishaw and Matthew Goode make for a bad revisitation to Brideshead

Director: Julian Jarrold

Cast: Matthew Goode (Charles Ryder), Ben Whishaw (Lord Sebastian Flyte), Hayley Atwell (Lady Julia Flyte), Emma Thompson (Lady Marchmain), Michael Gambon (Lord Marchmain), Greta Scacchi (Cara), Patrick Malahide (Mr Ryder), Felicity Jones (Lady Cordelia Flyte), Ed Stoppard (Lord Brideshead), Jonathan Cake (Rex Mottram), Joseph Beattie (Anthony Blanche)

There are some books that have been filmed definitively and you feel just shouldn’t be touched again. Perhaps the most definitive case is Brideshead Revisited. An 11-part, almost 13-hours-long, series from the height of the mini-series era, ITV’s 1981 Brideshead Revisited dramatised literally every page and every event of the just over 300 page novel, and did it with a perfect understanding of the book’s richness and complexity. So what hope could a film have – even if it is written by that man who had such a triumph with that other definitive production, the BBC Pride and Prejudice – Andrew Davies himself?

In the 1920s in Oxford, aspiring artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) falls in with the bohemian set of fellow student Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw). Sebastian takes Charles to his family home of Brideshead, a beautiful, entrancing family estate. But Sebastian is an unhappy man, increasingly prone to drinking, conflicted about his family’s strong Catholic faith and his own sexuality. He’s also tortured by the growing love between Charles and his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). Their domineering mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) attempts to guide the family as she wishes, but Sebastian’s alcoholism leads to a crisis. Years later Charles and Julia restart their relationship, only to find Catholicism and fate once again intruding to complicate matters.

Brideshead Revisited is a rich, sweeping, heartfelt and profound look at so many themes it seems impossible to cover them all in a single sentence. It touches upon questions of faith, class, politics, friendship, sexuality, love – all of them sensitively and intelligently explored by Evelyn Waugh. The TV series captured all these themes with an acute, empathetic emotional intelligence. This film, forced to telescope action into two hours, simplifies and sexualises the novel to make it as boiled down and simple as possible. While this probably makes for a decent, but nothing new, film for those who don’t know the novel, for those of us who do it’s nothing less than a total travesty.

Everything is made as straight-forward and basic as possible. Subtle suggestions from the novel are turned into blunt, simplified assertions that clang out of the actors’ mouths and hit the ground. This is especially clear in the character of Charles Ryder, a fascinating observer in the novel, both a snob and a romantic, capable of great warmth and kindness and also a distant indifference. Here, he’s little more than a social climber (his lower middle class roots are stressed), constantly being asked “What do you really want?” by other characters. His attachment to Sebastian, and introduction to the Brideshead house, seems based less on a magnetic friendship and more on his unspoken desire to be part of an “in-crowd”.

Ah yes, that relationship with Sebastian. Ben Whishaw’s performance as Sebastian is, quite simply, one of the worst realisations of an iconic character you are ever going to see. The novel’s Sebastian, is an impossible glamourous, handsome, slightly effete, but magnetically charismatic figure who effortlessly wins admirers and friends everywhere – so much so, that his intensely vulnerability, sadness and self-loathing that lead to his alcoholism are spotted way too late, and then hideously mismanaged. The character Whishaw plays here is so different, he’s effectively Flyte in name only.

It all stems from the film’s longing to put the book’s suggestion of a homosexual bond between Charles and Sebastian to the forefront. So we are made perfectly aware of Flyte’s feelings, and Whishaw turns the character instead into a stereotypical, limp-wristed, effete, tragic gay man struggling with a hopelessly unrequited love for Charles that pushes him over the edge to depression. Oh yes, it has to be unrequited love because we can’t have Charles show any homosexual inclinations. Particularly as the film is desperate to reposition Charles and Julia into a “love-at-first-sight” romantic couple from the start. So of course we have Charles twice rejecting sexual advances from Sebastian (once with the cold shoulder, the second time with an angry push). 

But in sexing up the content on the surface, the film totally kills the bond between the two characters. There is, frankly, no reason for Charles and Sebastian to be friends. Sebastian is from the start a slightly pathetic figure, so you never get a sense at all why Charles is drawn towards him. This then magnifies the feeling that Charles main motivation is the house (and Julia) and that he sees Sebastian as someone he must tolerate (and whom he later feels guilty about) rather than as a friend. Sebastian himself loses all his complexity, instead becoming a slightly pathetic, tragic, overlooked figure reduced to screaming at Charles “You only wanted to be my friend because you wanted my sister!” By pumping up the subtext, the film kills the central relationship of the book – and completely undermines the tragedy of Sebastian.

But then Andrew Davies was keen – as he stated himself in interviews – to reposition the novel as a conventional great romantic novel. Now it’s true that Charles calls Sebastian in the novel the “fore runner” for his feelings for Julia (and this relationship between Julia and Charles is, I will say, one thing the TV series didn’t quite nail), but in no way was she his main focus from the start. It makes Charles’ treatment (and, let’s be honest, leading on) of Sebastian crueller, and it also crudely simplifies the novel into a “love against the odds” story that we’ve seen a thousand times before. It drains the novel of one of the factors that made it original in the start.

So we end up with a Charles who basically, rather oddly, suffers the company of Sebastian but treats him as someone he wants to shrug off. We’ve got a romantic plot line between Julia and Charles that has been reduced to the most basic, cookie-cutter, Mills and Boon romance you can imagine. And the film still struggles through to attempt to deal with the book’s (perhaps) other major theme, religion. Catholicism, guilt and the power (and domination) of faith is key to the book – but here, it’s a crude subplot that positions religion as a sort of trouble-causing piece of mummery that gets in the way of happiness. Pretty much as far as you can get from Waugh’s understanding of the complex demands of faith, denial, guilt and love.

You could say it’s unfair to continually compare the film to the book and TV series. But not only is this meant to be an adaptation, but the film chose to shoot at Castle Howard in Yorkshire, just as the TV series did. So we see scenes play out, often in the exact same location as the masterful TV series. If the film doesn’t want to try and be original and find a new location, and visually apes the TV series as much as possible, it feels fair enough to compare it – and it find it wanting.

It’s a well-made film, I’ll give it that, and I like Adrian Johnstone’s score, but it’s turned an intelligent and absorbing novel into a sub-Merchant Ivory period prestige piece, with the focus on the lovely locations and the beautiful costumes rather than anything else. Performances wise, Matthew Goode is fine (but can’t escape the shadow of Jeremy Irons), but Hayley Atwell probably comes out best as a vibrant Julia (who gets, in a way, much more to do than the book gives her). For the rest, Emma Thompson gives a far too mannered performance as the domineering Lady Marchmain (here unquestionably a villain) and Michael Gambon coasts as the dying Lord Marchmain (who here turns up literally out of the blue at the end of the film to die).

Brideshead Revisited is an irrelevant piece of celluloid that brings nothing new whatsoever to the novel or the TV series. Worse it takes the key themes of the novel and subverts, ruins or mangles them in order to try and turn the story into a straightforward heterosexual romance. In doing so, it removes everything that makes the original interesting, unique or compelling – and makes people wonder why they should bother going back to the book – surely the worst offence of all.

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