© 2008 Ray Wong
Based on Evelyn Waugh's acclaimed 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited is the second adaptation (the first was a 1981 TV miniseries) that examines "the operation of divine grace" through the eyes of an atheist and his relationship with the aristocratic Flyte family in pre-war England.
Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a middle-class first-year student at Oxford, has a chance encounter with Sebastian Flyte (Ben Wishaw), the younger son of an aristocratic family. They become fast friends, and when Sebastian takes Charles to his stately family home, Brideshead Castle, Charles is entranced by the wealth and opulent lifestyle of the Flytes.
Charles and Sebastian form an extremely close friendship, often over food, wine, and childish horseplay. Eventually, Charles meets Sebastian's beautiful sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell) and mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), whom Sebastian has tried to avoid. A devout Catholic, Lady Marchmain tries to control her children through guilt and manipulation. Sebastian is a self-proclaimed sinner, and he finds greater solace in alcohol than religion, to his mother's dismay. Meanwhile, Charles is smitten with Julia. During a vacation at the Venetian home of their father, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), Sebastian witnesses a passionate kiss between Charles and Julia. Soon, the friendship between Sebastian and Charles deteriorates; and when Julia is engaged to a Catholic named Rex Mottram, Charles is further estranged from the Flytes.
Years go by before Charles is once again entangled with the Flytes. Eventually, he forms a relationship with Julia, who is now married to Rex. Charles plans to divorce his own wife and marry Julia. But circumstances arise and Julia doesn't want to live in sin anymore. Thus she chooses God instead of Charles. During WWII, Charles is now an army officer stationed at Brideshead. Finally he realizes the operation of the divine grace, even if he doesn't fully understand it.
Matthew Goode (The Lookout) is a promising young actor who has a short but impressive resume so far. As Charles Ryder, he exudes charm and an naiveté that can be deceiving. Charles is a truly conflicted character -- a reluctant protagonist, if you will. He's trapped by his vision of what a good life should be, his affection to Sebastian, his love for Julia, and his unwillingness to compromise. Goode portrays that inner conflict and reluctance very well. At times, however, he's a little dull as the man of both Julia's and Sebastian's affection. His performance may be a bit too controlled, too well-mannered, and reserved.
Ben Whishaw (I Am Not There) has a lot of heart playing Sebastian. He's supposed to be a weak character, partially why Charles feels protective of him. Though acting a bit too stereotypically effeminate, Whishaw actually shows a quiet strength in his character that Charles doesn't have -- he's defiant of his controlling mother and he refuses to compromise. He also knows exactly what he wants: Charles. Heyley Atwell (The Duchess) is the weakest of the three young leads. As Julia, her character is inconsistent, passive and her portrayal is low-key. Except for the moment when Julia is "sinning" with Charles, I don't find much sympathetic about her.
The veterans are what anchor the film. Emma Thompson (Stranger Than Fiction) is remarkable as controlling Lady Marchmain, and somehow she makes us pity her. Her faith has pushed her family away from her -- first her husband, then her children, and yet you know she genuinely cares for them. She's in every way a tragic character and it's all her own fault, but you still can't help but feel sorry for her. Alas, she simply doesn't have enough screen time. Michael Gambon (Harry Potter) also doesn't have enough screen time with his excellent portrayal of Lord Marchmain, who abandons his family to live with his mistress. He's a mirror of Sebastian (albeit totally heterosexual), and Gambon lights up the screen whenever he's on.
Not having read the novel, I have no idea how closely the screenplay, written by Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones's Diary) and Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland), stays with source material. As a standalone screenplay, however, the dialogue is good and the complexity of the relationships well laid out. There are places where the subtexts and subtlety are lost, however. Considering the novel is a first-person narration from Charles' point of view, what the film misses are the internal thoughts and conflicts Charles possesses, which don't really translate well to film. Often we're left without an inkling of why the characters act the way they do. I also assume that much of Waugh's symbolism, subtexts and lyrical prose are lost in the 133-minute production as well. Structurally the screenplay is good, but some of the time jumps are confusing. There are actually two bookends (one with Charles as an army officer during WWII, and one with Charles being an accomplished artist on board the Queen Mary) -- that threw me off a bit.
Julian Jarrold's (Becoming Jane) direction is lush and stately. The cinematography is scrumptious, and the costumes and set designs are wonderful. His pacing is languorous, and often evokes a sense of nostalgia that is appropriate for the film (which is supposed to be Charles Ryders's memoir). Even at over two hours long, the film doesn't feel slow. There are some key emotional moments that are poignant, subtle yet powerful. Still, limited by the screenplay, Jarrold can't seem to delve deeper into the psychology and layers of the character development. Therefore, the film looks gorgeous, sounds beautiful, but feels superficial.
While Brideshead is a beautiful adaptation with a nice cast (and a wonderful Emma Thompson) and a gorgeous production, in the shadow of the award-winning miniseries starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, one must wonder if this Brideshead is worth revisited.
Stars: Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon
Director: Julian Jarrold
Writers: Andrew Davies, Jeremy Brock (based on Evelyn Waugh)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some sexual content, nudity
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 9
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 7.8 out of 10