The first ever big screen mounting of the Evelyn Waugh novel Brideshead Revisited comes with great expectation. The book was chosen by Time as one of the “All-time 100 Novels” and the 1981 mini-series placed tenth in the 100 Greatest British Television Programs by the British Film Institute.
In the new version Matthew Goode is Charles Ryder, the role previously taken by Jeremy Irons in the mini-series. He is a middle class man from London drawn into the rarified world of the British upper class after he befriends the charismatic, but troubled Sebastian Marchmain (Ben Whishaw). At Brideshead, the luxurious Marchmain family estate, Ryder meets Sebastian’s younger sister, the beautiful Julia and his domineering mother (Emma Thompson), and his life is changed forever. Over the next decade Ryder learns first hand about the poison that lies beneath the prim and proper façade of the British upper crust as he, Sebastian and Julia try to bridge the deep rooted spiritual and social traditions that divide them and complicate their lives.
The new movie, ten hours shorter than the mini-series, compresses the 368 page novel into a tidy 135 minute film which plays fast and loose with the source material. Fans of the book will be pleased to know that Aloysius the teddy bear makes an appearance, and the ideas about repression, aristocracy and religion remain in place but may be less happy with other liberties taken by the filmmakers. Compressing the novel into feature length forced some changes to the time line of the story as presented in the book, but the core of the book remains untouched.
Handsomely translated for the screen—the film was shot at the grand Howard Castle, also the location of the mini series—the cinematography is lush, the period clothes suitably glamorous, the sets beautiful. More than just a Masterpiece Theatre treat for the eyes, the new Brideshead is wonderfully performed by a troupe comprised of British newcomers and old pros.
Goode plays Ryder as a low key, but unfailingly polite social climber with a conscience. Once he enters the gates of Brideshead he knows that he will never again be happy unless he is embraced by those who live within. The tragedy of his life is that while the upper crust inhabitants may love him, he will never truly be one of them. Goode slowly allows the complexity of his character to surface as he is drawn back to Brideshead year after year in his search or meaning in his life.
As Sebastian, the spoiled British eccentric—at one point he sends a telegram to Ryder saying he is near death, when in fact he only “broke a bone in his foot so small it doesn’t even have a name”—Ben Whishaw appears so fragile, both physically and emotionally, that the the weight of his responsibilities to his family and his religion seem ready to break him in half.
Hayley Atwell’s take on love interest Julia is dignified and yet sultry, but it is Emma Thompson as the formidable Lady Marchmain who dominates the screen. Hers is a supporting role with a relatively small amount of screen time, but Thompson makes the most of her scenes and walks away with the picture. With her starched delivery and arched eyebrows lines like, “Mr. Ryder, what form do your pleasures take?” or “Vulgar is not the same as funny,” become the verbal equivalent of a slap across the face.
Brideshead Revisited is sourced from material that is more than sixty years old and features spats, snoods and Model Ts but its themes of religious fundamentalism, pursuit of individualism and happiness, sexual tolerance and class are as current as anything on screens at your local multi-plex.