Persons with a reverence for the 11-part 1981 “Masterpiece Theatre”-ization of Evelyn Waugh’s popular 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited would probably be well advised to steer clear of Julian Jarrold’s film version of it. Having admired the book and read it more than once, I faithfully slogged through all 11 TV episodes and came away with the feeling that the miniseries had—rather like Mr. Waugh’s character Aimee Thanatogenes in The Loved One—expertly embalmed itself in its attempt to reproduce every comma in the novel. In so doing, it had only grasped the surface of the book, which it faithfully reproduced with suffocating period detail. For anyone of a similar mind, the film version should prove a different kettle of fish.
This is that rare film version of a book that captures the essence of the work, while at the same time bringing its own point of view to the table. Depending on your outlook, that’s either an admirable addition or an unpardonable liberty. Personally, I find the approach more interesting—if only because it doesn’t pretend to be the book, but is instead a reaction to it. If nothing else, this affords the viewer the chance of looking at the original in a different way. Waugh’s novel was an unabashed valentine to Catholicism—shot through with a certain degree of self-loathing, self-justification and hypocrisy (Waugh got himself out of a marriage with the aid of friends in the church—something he denies his protagonist). The film subtly brings out these aspects lurking behind the valentine.
The screenplay by Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland) and Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones’s Diary) reproduces the book’s story line and themes, while shrewdly condensing the events in a way that, for my money, improves on its structure. In tightening the events depicted, the film—unlike the book, and even more unlike the miniseries—never loses sight of the original love affair at the bottom of it all, which is the more interesting of the two love affairs in the book (unless you fully buy into Waugh’s extremely hard-line Catholicism)—at least insofar as there really are two love affairs, and not just one shown in reflection (something the TV miniseries never seemed to grasp, from the casting onward).
The story concerns Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode, The Lookout), a solidly middle-class young man who rises above his station and goes to Oxford. There he falls in love with Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw, I’m Not There), an incipient alcoholic who makes an immediate impression on Charles by leaning into Charles’ ground-floor window one night and being spectacularly unwell. (Were this a traditional romantic comedy, we’d call that “meeting cute.”) Soon the two are an item—even if not in deed, since both the novel and the film skirt the question of consummation (which is beside the point anyway).
Through a series of events—and perhaps the prejudices of society—Charles transfers his romantic attention from Sebastian to his look-alike sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell, Cassandra’s Dream), which only exacerbates Sebastian’s descent into alcoholism. This underlying theme of sublimation was blunted in the miniseries, since the actors portraying Sebastian and Julia (Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick) scarcely resembled each other. Here the actors not only do, but director Jarrold underscores Julia as Sebastian’s mirror image, bringing the point home (our first good look at her is, in fact, in the rearview mirror of a car). The film constantly parallels the two, and Jarrold makes it clear—largely through editing—that he views Sebastian as the great love of Charles’ life.
While a romance with Julia is one that society would more readily accept, it’s very unacceptable to Sebastian and Julia’s mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). This has little to do with class distinction (she says) and everything to do with Charles not being a Catholic. (There’s a hypocrisy here in that her choice for her daughter’s husband, the crass and rich American Rex Mottram, is pragmatically allowed to convert to the faith.) In either case, Charles’ romance with Julia is doomed—something telegraphed with a degree of irony by having a dance band launch into “I Want to Be Happy” at the moment when everything begins to fall apart.
The film makes two distinct choices, choices that have not set well with some viewers. In choosing to keep the Charles/Sebastian relationship an overriding concern, it also reacts more strongly to the theme of sublimation than Waugh was prepared to go. The material is in Waugh’s novel; it’s simply a question of presentation and approach. The same is true of the film’s decision to offer up Waugh’s vision of Catholicism intact, while giving a different reaction to it. Waugh found great comfort in his religion; the film takes a bleaker view of the faith, finding little or no solace in the hard-core dogma. Does the film subvert Waugh? No, it simply responds to his views differently, offering something more than a novel for those unwilling to read. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content.