A cursory visit
The best thing about the new movie version of Brideshead Revisited is that it may prompt viewers to read Evelyn Waugh’s novel—or at least to search out the award-laden 1981 TV miniseries with Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons. This new movie (written by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, directed by Julian Jarrold) is measured and tasteful, clearly a labor of serious intent, and hints at breadth of story and depth of character. But it only hints; the movie itself, sad to say, is rather dreary.
Waugh’s subtitle is The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, and in Jarrold’s movie, Ryder is played by Matthew Goode. We first see Charles as a successful artist sailing home from America on the Queen Mary in 1936, where he has an ambiguous encounter with a woman who greets him by name. We sense there’s a history here.
The movie then flashes back to give us the history. Charles is an underclassman at the University of Oxford, where he meets Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw). Through Sebastian, the middle-class Charles is introduced to the rarified world of the British nobility: Sebastian’s parents Lord and Lady Marchmain (Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson) and their ancestral home, Brideshead Castle—though in fact, Lord Marchmain is on the Continent, living in sin with his Italian mistress (Greta Scacchi). Most important, perhaps, Charles is introduced to Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), the woman we first glimpsed on the Queen Mary.
The movie then focuses—unsteadily—on the complex relationship among Charles, Sebastian and Julia, under the imperiously watchful eye of Lady Marchmain, a devout Catholic ever seeking to manipulate her children (and Charles when she deigns to notice him) with guilt and duty. Charles, though genuinely affectionate toward Sebastian, does not return his homosexual feelings, being smitten instead—indeed, obsessed—with Julia. Lady Marchmain, who approves neither her son’s sexuality nor her daughter’s dalliance, is not amused, choosing instead to marry Julia to a nouveau riche Canadian boor (Jonathan Cake). These entanglements haunt Charles and the Marchmains for years.
A large part of the reason Brideshead Revisited is such a misfire, unfortunately, is due to the performances of Goode, Whishaw and Atwell. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, exactly—Whishaw tends to make Sebastian a willowy, charmless whiner, but on the whole all three are earnest and attractive and perfectly competent. The trouble is that they don’t have the screen presence to make Charles, Sebastian and Julia indelible characters; they’re never more than decent actors politely sharing the screen. Their roles, reportedly, were originally to go to Paul Bettany, Jude Law and Jennifer Connelly, and the possibilities in that combination are enough to quicken anyone’s pulse. Certainly, with those three, we might not have missed Gambon and Thompson when they disappear from the screen too soon and for too long; we might even have forgiven the criminal underuse of Scacchi. We wouldn’t have resented spending so much time with these callow young actors while their betters were hustled out of sight.
Then again, probably not even Bettany, Law and Connelly could have done much with Brideshead as it stands. The overwhelming impression the movie leaves us with is the sense that a lot of fascinating stuff has been left out. Supporting characters are less than sketchy: Charles and Sebastian’s circle at Oxford, dismissed as a gaggle of flouncy queens in a single twee tea-party scene; Charles’ unfaithful wife Celia (Anna Madeley), so minor that we never even hear her name; Charles and Celia’s children, who never appear at all; Charles’ father (Patrick Malahide), reduced from some of the best-known comic scenes in the novel to a couple of haughty interjections.
Brideshead Revisited has a stately Merchant-Ivory gloss, but hardly a minute goes by where director Jarrold and company don’t whisk us by a scene or a character that makes us think, “There’s a lot more to this than we’re getting here.”