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Movie Review: Brideshead Revisited

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“I hear they took a lot of things out and changed everything. I’ll probably hate this.” Those worried remarks were uttered by a woman seated behind me as I settled in to watch Brideshead Revisited. I soon realized that her worst fears were likely coming true, and that I was going to have a great time.

Most films offer a key around the fifteen minute mark, often some bit of dialog, usually buried under some innocuous seeming exposition. In Brideshead Revisited, the main character Charles Ryder, an artist, is asked why he bothers with paintings when he could simply take a photograph. He replies that a camera is merely a mechanical device, impersonal. With a painting – however imperfect it may be – one can interpret the subject as well as usher forth otherwise hidden emotions.

This is director Julian Jarrold’s sly way of stating his intent with his adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 1945 classic British novel. His aims were to interpret and in his own imperfect way delve into what emotionally drew him to the book. One might say that, if the reverent 1981 television miniseries was a photograph of the novel, Jarrold’s movie is a painting.

I haven’t read the book. Observing the shape and focus of Jarrold’s movie raised some suspicions though that the movie may be charting a different course. Those suspicions were largely confirmed later by a quick Internet search.

The movie focuses on Charles’s romantic affairs with a brother and sister, Sebastian and Julia Flyte, both set aflame by shared kisses in romantic locales, a nice bit of symmetry. It is Charles’s kiss with Julia by the canals, accidentally observed by Sebastian, which brings death to the first affair in the city of Venice. Sebastian then slips into a drunken depression and winds up alone in Morocco to later be visited by Charles.

Openly gay content – something I had not expected – was at the forefront. And now two episodes alluding to touchstones of gay cinema – Death in Venice and the Moroccan interlude from Fox and His Friends – have been given ample screen time. Thus, it came as no surprise when I learned that Waugh’s book contained no overt gay subject matter – Charles and Sebastian are just close friends. This new dimension is Jarrold providing his interpretation along with a fresh set of ideas and obsessions.

I never got into Masterpiece Theater or the Merchant/Ivory productions like Howard’s End. They always seemed too stuffy. But this Brideshead Revisited is different. It has messiness about it. Characters are allowed to stutter and stumble and vomit. Emma Thompson gets to shed a tear. Romantic moments are repeatedly punctuated by the lighting of cigarettes, the smoke swirling about and embracing the love-smitten. The whole screen sparkles with dancing reflections from the Venice waters during Charles and Julia’s first romantic encounter. And the final shot stunningly transforms Charles into the image of a candle flame by drifting out of focus as he walks away.

Maybe these are some of those beautiful imperfections that make paintings so preferable to photographs in Charles’s mind.

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