dir: Julian Jarrold
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Plenty of people, pretty much only the people who’ve read the book and watched the BBC series, would think that a film version of Brideshead Revisited is either redundant or pointless or both. I have watched the series and read the book, and have now watched this latest adaptation. Hurray for me.
So maybe I am one of those who think a new version is pointless. Thing is, though, I still enjoyed the flick.
Of course a two-hour version seems pointless after the majesty and scope and patience of the series, but then when you’re making a film for contemporary audiences, you’re not catering to people with relaxed attention spans and time. You’re catering to hyper-caffeinated people with the patience, attention span and morals of feral ferrets.
So, boiling a complex novel down to its essentials is the order of the day, here. I don’t have a problem with that, mostly because I’m so familiar with the source material. Sure, it is period piece stuff arising from the success of Atonement (which is a very different kettle of gay fish compared to Brideshead) with a similar kind of look, but it’s not an especially complex story.
The greatest irony about this flick (and this story) is that it’s really about something quite unexpected. Sure, it’s about Charles Ryder falling in love with a landed gentry family in decline. Sure, it’s about an alcoholic (Ben Whishaw) who clutches his teddy into adulthood, his sarcastic sister Julia (and the decadent Lord Marchmain (in this version played by Michael Gambon), and the starchy, strident Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), and Charles’s interactions with all of them.
Ultimately, though, it’s about Catholicism. If you knew nothing about the story, you never would have guessed, huh? I mean, how many stories from Britain are there really about Catholicism at least since, let’s say, Henry the VIII’s reign of wife-decapitating terror?
I’m sure there are plenty, it’s just that not too many of them have ended up as films. Especially not ones seen by myself.
It’s impossible to avoid the issue of the Catholic faith, since it informs everything that happens throughout the film, though you don’t realise how fundamental it is until the end. Although there are plenty of clues along the way.
On the face of it, it really looks like it’s just a story set initially in the 1920s about Charles, a young man who goes to Oxford and ends up being befriended by a very swish, very witty aristocrat called Sebastian, who seems to be the very gay light of some very gay parties. That’s gay both in the fun time sense as well as the hot man-on-man action sense. Sebastian is gay in that way that makes for flamboyant performances but never gets sweatier or more off-putting for homophobic audiences than a shock horror shared kiss between two drunk male friends. Charles is both more and less ambiguous than that. That Charles and Sebastian become close friends is undeniable, but whether it constitutes a ‘relationship’ in that boarding school sense is still, to me, unclear (at least from the perspective of this flick).
It doesn’t really matter. Sebastian is, for Charles, the entry point into a realm he would otherwise not have access to, and for Sebastian, Charles is an ally against the tyranny of his mother. When he lies to force Charles to visit him at the palatial manor he calls home, being Brideshead, it’s not solely in order to get someone to drink with.
And drink they do. They drink like champions, and it takes a while for it to start looking less like the fun of being on tour with The Beasts of Bourbon in their prime, and more like the sad, compulsive behaviour that it is. It also takes us a while to understand why the impossibly witty and louche Sebastian is so intent on destroying himself with alcohol.
By the time the fearsome Lady Marchmain arrives on the scene, portrayed exquisitely and humourlessly by Emma Thompson, we start getting the impression that the denizens of this manor are far from the happy peasant-abusing aristocrats we have come to expect.
In fact they’re far from happy, and, for reasons that don’t have to be analysed right here, it’s because they’re Catholic. All of them are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Even Sebastian’s sister, Julia, who seems like she’s the most likely to be able to put her faith behind her and live an enjoyable life, is not immune.
The one person who seems to be missing from the ‘happy’ family is Lord Marchmain, who, being something of a reprobate, has absconded from the landed gentry’s demesne many years prior, and now whores it up in Venice, Florence, Wollongong or wherever it was the syphilitic aristos of the era went to get their rocks off. He is, of course, ever so charming and hilarious, to completely juxtapose himself against the stern and dour Lady Marchmain, who he wisely abandoned because she was such a bring-down kind of person.
Not only does Charles travel to Italy in order to see more of how the other half live, he’s a traveller, or a tourist, throughout his own story. He meanders around for the entire film’s duration, mostly seeming like he’s only just dropped in for a few minutes for a quick chat, only briefly displaying glimpses of his desperate hunger for these people, until, of course, he realises that they are too different from him and too Catholic for the relationship to work.
Matthew Goode, who’s as well cast in this as I thought he was (contrary to most reviewers’ opinions) as Adrian Veidt / Ozymandias in the recent Watchmen film, uses a light touch throughout the whole flick, as indeed does the director. Both of them stand in the shadow not of the acclaimed book, but of the treasured BBC series. And wisely, they elect not to compete either with the breadth and depth of the series, or Jeremy Irons. He has an accomplished grasp of the character, and of the subtleties involved or required by his portrayal. This is a man suffused both with longing and reserve, who only realises what he is hungering for when it is far too late.
Anyone with any sense knows it’s unwise to compete with an over-actor of Irons’s magnitude, and he doesn’t try. I still thought he was most excellent in the role.
At first it felt like the chap playing Sebastian was way too over the top, but later on it seemed Ben Whishaw, who I’d previously only seen in the diabolically brilliant Perfume, brought a fragile vulnerability to the character lacking in the series, and perhaps being somewhat truer to the book. Sebastian’s decline, which is inexorable, is perhaps not as confusing in this version, in that we can see a bit more clearly how if not why he is so vulnerable to the fervent dogmatism of his formidable mother. A child so broken has limited paths to take, though it isn’t for the reasons more contemporary stories lazily tend to rely on (where abuse is the catch-all and excuse for every behaviour.)
Of course it can’t be as all encompassing, as comprehensive as the series. I remember a whole episode of the series which consisted entirely of Charles and Julia leisurely walking up and down the hallways of an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic. Sure, it was as enjoyable as any other part of the series, but when I see reviewers bitching about how empty this flick is because elements of the novel have been so ruthlessly pared down, it makes me shake my head and wonder aloud as to how many fucking hours of people walking around and amiably chatting audiences would actually prefer. Is there much of a market for it, or is it a fetish niche for the devoted few?
Fer fuck’s sake… Anyway, I enjoyed it, I guess because I was in the mood for some wistful period piece type stuff, which I’m generally a fan of when it’s not too turgid or try-hard, and doesn’t have Keira Knightly in it. This struck the right balance for me, even as it doesn’t presume to do everything the book or the series could do.
It does enough, though, and who knows: it might just inspire people to read the book. Or convert to Catholicism, whichever comes first.
7 times one wonders about sensitive crimes committed at Oxford whilst punting down the Thames out of 10
“Drinking is not a hobby, Sebastian!” – don’t listen to her boy, she’s lying to you, Brideshead Revisited.