Friday, August 8, 2008

Brideshead Revisited: Too brief a visit

Brideshead Revisited (2008) • View trailer for Pineapple Express
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for chaste nudity and some sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.8.08
Buy DVD: Brideshead Revisited • Buy Blu-Ray: Brideshead Revisited (2008) [Blu-ray]

Much as I wanted director Julian Jarrold's handling of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited to stand on its own merits, this big-screen adaptation pales when compared to 1981's 11-hour British miniseries, which became such a must-see event for so many fans.
Although he has been brought to the Brideshead estate as a guest of the
emotionally fragile Sebastian (Ben Whishaw, right), with whom he even
indulges in a summer fling, Charles (Matthew Goode) changes his tune upon
meeting his friend's sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell).

Even at a relatively economical 336 pages, Waugh's 1945 novel is a dense read with an extremely weighty subtext: the decline of the English Catholic aristocracy, as viewed through the eyes of an unsophisticated, middle-class young man — Charles Ryder — utterly out of his depth after getting tangled within the toxic relationships that characterize the aristocratic Flyte family.

John Mortimer (Rumple of the Bailey), the genius author and playwright who adapted the book for the 1981 miniseries, had both the narrative skill and the leisurely pacing necessary to showcase all of the book's many characters; the result was a sumptuous, melodramatic feast that left viewers feeling that they had, indeed, witnessed the passing of an entire British era.

This new film, by comparison, limits its concerns to Charles and the key members of the Flyte family; we get no sense of the story's broader implications. Writers Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock concentrate so relentlessly on this particular family's Catholic guilt that we eventually view them as a dysfunctional aberration, rather than a symbol of the crumbling class structure taking place throughout the entire country.

Then, too, the focus on the story's primary romantic triangle takes place at the expense of all the equally fascinating supporting players, not to mention several other members of the Flyte family. (I particularly miss the wonderfully flamboyant Boy Mulcaster, reduced here to a pair of eyeblink cameos.)

And when this condensed character treatment is coupled with the film's disconcerting habit of diving back and forth in time, sometimes leaping ahead many years and leaving us to wonder what took place in between, or what year we're in now, the result feels like a badly hacked-up version of what should have been at least a four-hour film.

Jarrold and editor Chris Gill get no points for narrative clarity.

On the positive side, the film absolutely drips with an atmosphere so simultaneously opulent and poisonous that we cannot help feeling the moral decay that plagues so many of these characters. Then, too, the acting is uniformly excellent, and this is no small thing; anything less, and I'd be making unfavorable comparisons to the miniseries' Jeremy Irons (Charles), Anthony Andrews (Sebastian Flyte) and Diana Quick (Julia Flyte).

But Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw and Hayley Atwell make these roles their own, and then some; indeed, Whishaw is far more persuasive as the doomed and sepulchral Sebastian, who stub- bornly succumbs to his many vices rather than endure the constantly disappointed and disapproving looks from his mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson).

Thompson, who never disappoints, is equally brilliant. Although given comparatively few scenes, Lady Marchmain's oppressive spirit hovers malignantly over this entire film. Thompson can deliver even the most casual phrase or question with a chilling undertone that prompts a listener (and us) to flinch, as though she had screamed in fury, rather than calmly spoken with deceptively benign condescension.

Lady Marchmain is the original black widow: a mother and wife forever disappointed by family members who can't help but fail to live up to her exacting and self-centered expectations. She wields her Catholic faith as a blunt instrument rather than a means of comfort, and is the center of her family universe; woe to any children who stray from their prescribed orbits.

The issue of Catholic rigidity proves an impossible barrier for Charles, a self-described aethiest; it separates him from the Flytes far more irrevocably than even the already imposing boundaries of class. More than once, Charles' distaste for these religious trappings becomes painfully evident, which can't help feeling ironic; Sebastian and Julia may be miserable under their Catholic yoke, but it's not as if Charles, free of such ritual, is any happier.

Following a lightning-quick and oblique prologue set during World War II, as a morose Charles is dismayed to find that he has been posted to the Marchmain estate, now converted for military use, the story proper begins in the 1920s with his first year at Oxford. Although warned to avoid consorting with "the Sodomites," whose scandalous behavior is at odds with the institution's otherwise staid atmosphere, Charles can't help being attracted to the wealthy Sebastian and his cheerfully outrageous antics.

Sebastian's interest is more than casual; his attraction to Charles quickly adopts the air of a doomed romance (and the homosexual element is much stronger here than in Waugh's novel). Charles seems willing, at least initially, and Goode deftly conveys his character's sexual ambiguity.

We must remember that British aristocrats of this era were curiously tolerant about gay university crushes, chalking them up to "boys will be boys" high spirits; even Lady Marchmain, when Charles finally meets her, seems more amused than annoyed.

But Sebastian's mother clearly hopes that her son will grow out of such "tendencies," just as she prays he'll learn to drink for sport, rather than as a means of escaping his own head. (Lady Marchmain's priorities, and the reasons that drive them, are macabre and highly unsettling.)

Because of the story's compressed nature, we never really get the fact that Sebastian's withdrawal also is driven, at least in part, by his status; as the second-born son in an aristocratic family, he's next to useless by definition. But because we spend so little time with the foppish, socially inept elder son, Bridey (Ed Stoppard), we get no sense of this conflict.

No, this film focuses on only one conflict: the romantic triangle that erupts once Charles meets Sebastian's sister, Julia. Although essentially betrothed to the gallant Rex Mottram (Jonathan Cake, who really nails his role despite minimal screen time), Julia also finds herself attracted to Charles. Sadly, as we discover, she's just as emotionally damaged as Sebastian.

The setting for all this angst is the ancestral Marchmain estate known as Brideshead, a veritable Eden that enchants Charles from his first glimpse. The enormous mansion and its equally imposing grounds actually turn this romantic triangle into a square, since Charles is just as smitten with Brideshead as with any merely human companions.

He certainly can't be faulted; filming took place at Yorkshire's Castle Howard, which has a frankly breathtaking "wow factor." Jarrold and cinematographer Jess Hall take pains to make Brideshead a character in its own right; an English estate hasn't established such a foreboding presence since the heroine of Rebecca began her story by saying, "Last night, I dreamed of Manderley again."

Jarrold, Davies and Brock devote the lion's share of their film to these seemingly idyllic days, weeks and months at Brideshead, along with a brief sojourn in Venice, where Charles meets the hedonistic Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon, wonderfully sinister in his own right) and the Italian mistress (Greta Scacchi) who has made his life much happier.

It appears, based on how the story progresses, that we're to be primarily concerned with Sebastian's crumbling hold on sanity after Charles throws him over for Julia ... but no.

As he is in Waugh's novel, Charles remains the primary focus; unfortunately, it becomes harder to chart his emotional arcs, because this film becomes clumsier as we progress to this story's second and third acts. Charles picks up and then divorces a wife (Anna Madley, as Celia) with such casual disregard that we scarcely realize they've even been married.

Everything builds to Lord Marchmain's climactic and unexpected return to Brideshead, at which point Charles finally realizes that the estate isn't Eden, but actually paradise lost.

We're left with the curious notion that Jarrold views Charles as something of a villain: covetous and opportunistic at the least, and perhaps as manipulative as Lady Marchmain at the worst. This is at odds with how Waugh (and Mortimer) used this character, seeing him more as a mostly helpless observer — a naif — swept up by privileged people who overwhelm his provincial sensibilities.

The climax and epilogue here are a far cry from the poignant sense of lost innocence that accompanies the book's conclusion, and that of the 1981 miniseries. Jarrold seems to feel that Charles deserves his fate, a reading with which I cannot agree.

The fine acting and rich production values aside, then, this Brideshead is both a shadow and an unsatisfying re-interpretation of Waugh's novel. The former is merely disappointing; the latter is unacceptable.

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