It's difficult enough as it is to try and adapt a well known novel as a movie without disappointing audiences, but when somebody else has already made what many consider the definitive adaptation of the same work, the job becomes nearly impossible. Such was the case for director Julian Jarrold and the rest involved with bringing the version of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited to the big screen in 2008 that's now being released on DVD January 13th/09. Back in 1981 Granada Television of England had produced an eleven-part television serial that not only faithfully reproduced the entire novel, but featured truly iconic performances from Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in the lead roles of Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte respectively.
Of course comparisons between the two are decidedly unfair as this latest version is trying to tell the same story in around a tenth of the time. The entire movie is probably only a little longer than two episodes of the television series and it can't afford to spend the same amount of time paying attention to details. Very wisely Jarrold and his script writers decided to not even attempt to compete with Granada's production, and have streamlined their focus to an investigation of the interrelationship between the characters.
While the story begins and ends during the Second World War, the majority of the action takes place between the wars. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is from a stolid middle-class family and is just beginning his first term at Oxford University. Although he is ostensibly studying history, his true ambition is to be a painter. His introduction to Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) is not what one would call auspicious, as one evening the young aristocrat leans through Charles' window and vomits. The next morning an apology in the shape of three large bouquets of flowers and an invitation to lunch are delivered to Charles, marking the beginning of their relationship.
Sebastian and Charles come from two decidedly different worlds, and not just in terms of social position. For as well as being landed gentry Sebastian's family are Catholic. While that may not be a big deal now, in England at this time it was a very significant difference, especially among the nobility. Since the days of Henry Vlll and the establishment of The Church Of England, Catholic nobility were viewed with suspicion and mistrust because it was believed their loyalties were divided because they obeyed the Pope over their own monarch. They had been subject to persecution since that time and had subsequently become a very insular community dividing the world into us and them.
While Charles doesn't understand the significance of the difference in faith, he does understand the significance of the wealth represented by Sebastian's home, Brideshead. From the first moment that Charles sees Brideshead he falls in love with its grandeur, and the wealth that it represents. Sebastian is loath for Charles to meet his family, or even visit the estate, but during the summer break from classes he invites him to come and stay. It's during this visit that Charles first meets Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) and their mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), and the events are set in motion that will shape the three young people's lives.
Sebastian is gay, and very much in love with Charles. While Charles is undoubtedly infatuated with Sebastian, he's equally infatuated with the lifestyle that Sebastian's wealth allows them to lead. Although he's initially content with Sebastian, the introduction of Julia quickly changes the dynamics of their relationship as he becomes increasingly more attracted to her. When Lady Marchmain asks Charles to accompany Sebastian and Julia on a trip to Venice to visit their father Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) and his mistress in order to keep Sebastian out of trouble he agrees readily enough, but ends up abandoning him in order to pursue Julia.
While Charles seems on the surface to be perusing a relationship with both Julia and Sebastian, the truth of the matter is he's really in love with Brideshead and the wealth and power it represents. However, with both Julia and Sebastian, what he failed to understand was the role religion played in their lives and how much it dictated how they behaved. For them Charles was a means of rebelling against the confines of their faith, and in the end they both choose their religion over him. Dazzled by the grandeur and wealth they both represented he failed to see who either of them really were.
While this version of Brideshead Revisited was unable to go into the same depth of detail as the television series, it did a remarkable job of depicting the book's major themes of betrayal and faith through its examination of the relationship between the three young protagonists. It's important to remember that Evelyn Waugh was a devout Catholic while watching the movie, for although there are times it appears that it is being critical of the church, it is also very clear in showing the comfort that faith can bring to troubled people.
The acting is superlative throughout the movie, but Ben Whishaw as Sebastian and Emma Thompson as his mother are truly remarkable. Thompson manages to make the formidable and easy-to-hate Lady Marchmain very human by giving us glimpses of the scared and vulnerable woman hidden behind the mask of propriety. She gives us occasion to ask ourselves what it must have been like for a woman of her position to have spent the majority of her married life with her husband living abroad with a mistress. It's a remarkable job that I don't think another actor could have carried off with the same grace and style.
Whishaw as Sebastian is a brilliant combination of vulnerability and charisma. While he is obviously effeminate he never once crosses the line into camp or making his character an object of ridicule. While to all outward appearances he is the epitome of dissolute nobility, Whishaw is able to make him substantial enough that we can understand why Charles is attracted to him. There is an inner core of steel underneath the fey exterior that gives him the strength of character needed to survive the betrayals and hurts his character experiences at the hands of those he loves the most. It's a breathtaking performance by an incredibly skilled and talented actor.
The version of the DVD that I viewed was widescreen which helped to emphasis the grandeur of the Brideshead estate so that, like Charles, our first view takes our breath away and leaves us slightly awe struck. As is the case with all new releases the sound is 5.1 surround, but it was a bit overwhelming at times with the orchestration drowning out some of the dialogue even when played through a surround sound system. As far as special features go there is the usual optional audio commentary that can be listened to while watching the movie, a collection of deleted scenes, and a making of featurette.
When I first heard that a film version of Brideshead Revisited was being released I admit I had my doubts as to its ability to compete with the mini-series that had been released in the early 1980s. However through a combination of superlative performances and intelligent film making, the people behind this new release have created their own masterpiece. A remarkable achievement and a wonderful film.