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Blu-ray Review: Brideshead Revisited – 30th Anniversary Edition

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Some things are both incredibly beautiful and terribly sad at the same time.  Charles Ryder, the lead character in Brideshead Revisited, would  happily note as much.  Well, he might not do it happily—he does very little happily—but he would, beyond a shadow of a doubt, agree with the statement.  The famed 1981 television miniseries based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel is an hours-long lament, a lament for a time gone by and things which have been lost.  It is both a beautiful and a sad tale about the way lives intersect and diverge. 

Eleven episodes long and running nearly 700 minutes, the miniseries stars Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder a young man, who, while at Oxford, runs across the wealthy, young, Lord Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews).  Sebastian is the second son Lord and Lady Marchmain (Laurence Olivier and Claire Bloom), and a lover of both the finer things in life and excess. 

Although not poor, Charles is neither a member of the nobility nor rich.  Enthralled by Sebastian—and later amused, bewildered, chagrined, enthralled, and more in various combinations by his family—Charles becomes quite good friends indeed with the Marchmains.  He is a regular guest at their estate, Brideshead; at their London home; and elsewhere, and soon a confidant of the family.

The tale is nothing more and nothing less than the story of Charles’ life, from his heading off to Oxford in the early 1920s through to his participation in the Second World War.  In fact, the miniseries is framed by the war, with Charles recalling the events of his life upon his troop finding themselves stationed near Brideshead.  

Without delving too deeply into the storyline and ruining it for anyone who hasn’t seen it (a concern I take seriously despite the new Blu-ray release being issued to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the series), while Brideshead Revisited doesn’t take terribly many twists and turns, it still unfolds wonderfully.   No, there are no huge surprises, but that won’t stop one from loving the tale.

In large part this is due to the plethora of wonderful performances Brideshead Revisited has to offer.  Jeremy Irons delivers an unbelievably wonderful performance as Charles, and is able to portray the character over the course of more than 20 years beautifully.  Charles truly moves from being this naïve, wide-eyed schoolboy into something much more fully developed as an adult, and Irons’ portrayal of these moments in Charles’ life makes that movement feel real and motivated.

Of course, the outstanding performances don’t stop there.  Anthony Andrews gives Sebastian, a character who could perhaps all too quickly become caricature and annoying, a humanity he might not otherwise have.  Diana Quick as the eldest Flyte daughter, Julia, has a role which starts off small, but proves pivotal and powerful.  Over the course of the series, Julia undergoes quite a lot, and we go from seeing bits and pieces of her life from the outside to being far closer to it and getting a much better idea of her character.  It is a switch which both the show and Quick make appear effortless despite its importance.  Perhaps though the best performance is given by John Gielgud as Edward Ryder, Charles’ father.  Although he is only in approximately half the episodes, every scene between Charles and Edward is a true joy to watch.  Edward is this aloof man whom one is never quite sure about – does he honestly not know how long his son has been away, does he really not remember that his son has no money, does he truly believe that Charles’ friend is from America?  The scenes are brilliantly understated bits of comedy.  Gielgud walks a very fine line between making Edward appear either inhumanly callous or a true buffoon and consequently ends up with somewhere altogether wonderful and different.  But, to try to single out more actors for their roles would be to discount those who aren’t mentioned but no less wonderful.  Certainly though Simon Jones as Lord Brideshead (the eldest Flyte child) and Phoebe Nicholls as Cordelia (the youngest Flyte child) ought to be at least noted for their work.  As part of the eccentric Flyte family, they fit in beautifully.

A period drama about the rich and powerful, Brideshead Revisited could easily slip under the radar as just another one of those classically British series about having a stiff upper lip, maintaining decorum at all costs, and never really delving into how people feel.  Certainly there are moments in the series when one wants to know more (is the relationship between Charles and Sebastian merely one of friends or is it something deeper?), but which are never discussed.  However, the acting elevates an already interesting story into something far better.  And, when combined with the incredible sets and location shooting (a portion of the miniseries was actually shot onboard the Queen Elizabeth II), what the viewer ends up with is something more substantial and altogether superb.

Where this edition is a letdown is in its presentation.  Over the course of the 11 episodes, the quality of the Blu-ray image goes from slightly above average to horrific on more than one occasion (and is not always constant within an episode).  It appears as though the source material for the episodes is not constant (or at least was not maintained in the same manner), leading to some episodes being far more washed out and grainy than others.  Even if there isn’t terribly much dirt nor terribly many scratches, the visual noise is still rather excessive at times and exceedingly distracting.  There is no great level of detail to the images either, making one wonder if Blu-ray upcharge is worth it (perhaps in standard definition the visuals are better for having less information available).   The sound is 2.0 Dolby Digital and certainly never sinks to the depths of the visuals.  On the other hand, there is nothing that stands out about it either – it is a TV series track in a dialogue-heavy show from 30 years ago. 

While this set does have new bonus features, they are simply episode commentaries for four of the 11 episodes and some additional photo galleries.  The main bonus feature is a 48 minute piece from 2006 looking back on the making of the film with a number of interviews.  Also included are outtakes and a 20 page booklet about the series.  While everything included here is nominally interesting, one can’t help but feel as though such an incredible miniseries ought to sport a more substantial bonus offering. 

Brideshead Revisited is an incredible miniseries which tells a tale that may remain outside the scope of many of our experiences, but which manages to go about its story in a way that is engaging and heartfelt.  Although a number of the characters remain emotionally aloof and rather cold in their words, their portrayals manage to be heartfelt and draw one in totally and completely.  It is a miniseries well worth the time it takes to watch, and a true treat for those who do make that commitment.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.