Doodad Kind of Town

"Brideshead Revisited"
August 10, 2008, 7:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Back in the early ’80s, I went through a rather passionate Anglophiliac phase, during which I watched a lot of Masterpiece Theatre and read a significant number of novels by Evelyn Waugh.

My memories of that period are a little dim now, but there I remember two things distinctly:

1) “Brideshead Revisited” was, by far, my least favorite of Waugh’s books.
2) I was not able to make it through all 13 excruciating hours of the TV miniseries based on “Brideshead”. In fact, I’m pretty sure it would have taken me longer to watch the series than it did to read the whole damn book.

(Ok, point#2 may be a little unfair. It wasn’t all “excruciating” – Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews were actually quite good, and there were some bright, amusing spots here and there. But I don’t think I could be persuaded to sit through so much as a single episode of it again.)

Anyway: to put it bluntly, the new film version of “Brideshead Revisited” was nowhere near the top of my summer “must-see movies” list. Frankly, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would bother to remake it, and fully expected it to be another airless period piece/interior decorating showcase, bound to bore me silly.

But I was pleasantly surprised. “Brideshead Revisited” actually works onscreen, though I suspect that Waugh purists and lovers of the television series will be disappointed. You might say that it often feels like the cinematic “Cliff’s Notes” version of the novel, and you’d probably be right. But I was just so happy to have the story told in under 13 hours this time that I really didn’t care.

For the uninitiated, “Brideshead” is told from the point of view of Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), an Oxford student who falls under the spell of the wealthy and devoutly Catholic Flyte family. He first develops a close friendship with fellow Oxonian, Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), the eccentric, teddy bear-toting, usually inebriated (and probably gay) son who brings Charles home to the family estate. Charles is dazzled by the beauty of the Flyte’s palatial home, but even more dazzled by the beauty and quick wit of Sebastian’s sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell).

But what Charles -a self-professed atheist -fails to grasp is the depths of the family’s Catholic faith. The icy and powerful family matriarch, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thomspon, giving a beautifully nuanced performance) sees to it that her children are absolutely devoted to God – exhorting them to pray, leading daily rosary services in the family chapel, and ultimately driving each of them into private hells of guilt and self-recrimination. In opposition to her, Charles sets himself up as a sort of savior who will help Sebastian and Julia find enlightenment, but he is thwarted in his efforts.

Goode has a thankless role as the outsider who is a bit too desperate to be liked, too hungry for the upper class family’s approval, and too assured of his own value to them. He’s a bit of a cipher, overshadowed by Atwell’s lively, soulful performance as well as Whishaw’s sensitive work. Thompson projects a quiet but deadly confidence that leaves you in no doubt as to her Lady Marchmain’s control over her offspring; during the second half of the film, when her character is gone from the story, you still sense her presence and influence. And Michael Gambon is a brief but welcome presence as Lord Marchmain, who is estranged from the family and living is Venice with his Italian mistress.

Director Julian Jerrold (whose recent work includes the delightful “Kinky Boots”) and screenwriter Jeremy Brock (“The Last King Of Scotland”) have distilled the story down to its essential plot points and thematic elements, and it moves along briskly at just under 2 hours and 15 minutes. There’s plenty of visual grandeur to be glimpsed, but the story and performances are riveting enough that I never once found myself admiring the furniture or the silverware when I should have been listening to the characters’ dialogue.

Waugh’s novel was about many things (including, to me at least, a ridiculous and almost shameful over-idolization of the British upper classes). But it was mainly about redemption and grace. The final image of this film subtly but effectively depicts a glimmer of grace reaching an unlikely recipient. It’s one moment the filmmakers get absolutely right.


3 Comments so far
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WOW. I never noticed until now that you had reviewed this film, Pat. As you MAY well be aware (as I know that you visit CINEMATIC PASSIONS from time to time)BRIDESHEAD was my #1 film of 2008 AND the only motion picture that I gave five stars to. Five star ratings (as in CLASSIC) are a rarity for me…and I don’t take them lightly. (Last year, just before I started blogging, I gave ATONEMENT and THERE WILL BE BLOOD five stars. I’d give CLOSER and CHICAGO five as well. But that may well be it for the entire decade. I’d have to check.)I only bestowed that glorious gift om BRIDESHEAD after seeing it twice. I went on to view it another five times and it hit me at gut level EVERY SINGLE TIME. The Anglophile thing that you speak of is very familiar to me. I grew up in a corner of the Pacific Northwest (where I still reside) that is greatly influenced by that culture. We have a lot of UK expats living here. So it’s easy for me to relate. I’ve always been drawn to all that stuff and I grew up immersed in it. As someone who left the church at a very young age over things that I could not possibly reconcile, I identified DEEPLY. Many people would find it entirely ridiculous for someone who’s very much in love to give up a cherished relationship due to faith and the supposed facts that Catholicism demands chasteness outside of marriage and only recognizes one union of that kind FOR LIFE. At 14, I would have said it was crazy. I’m a passionate Irish girl…and life is much too short. As long as you’re fond of the guy (AT THE VERY LEAST) take it and run, run, RUN. Raise a little hell before it’s too late. I still think it’s crazy. But due to my upbringing I could UNDERSTAND it all too well. I could see how the characters fought against the inevitable tide. But it always came back to the same thing – with all that horrific and unnecessary guilt. The Church would never approve. When Charles looked at Julia and said, “I have to let you go. But I hope your heart breaks,” I got it. COMPLETELY. It gives me chills just typing the words now. We may just be the only two people on the planet who preferred the film to the miniseries. I actually bought the bloody thing and watched it when I was in the middle of my BRIDESHEAD film marathon.It is excellent. But it’s f’ing dry and it seems like they PUT EVERY SINGLE DETAIL of the book in there. I’ve never read it…and I have no interest in doing so now. But ANTHONY ANDREWS – in the TV version – was just revelatory. Physically, he’s the kind of guy that I go for and I have dated people that resembled him. He was a big plus. Absolutely gorgeous and a really great actor. He absolutely WAS the quintessential Sebastian. But I do love the film much more. Also glad that you liked HAYLEY ATWELL. I thought she was fabulous. As you so astutely and eloquently stated, the final image is all about redemption and grace. I would fall all to pieces at the end. All those lives ruined. Just for the sake of a religion. Charles will always be shattered by BRIDESHEAD. It was where he met the people that shaped his life. It was the place responsible for his greatest joys and sorrows – his biggest triumphs, his most tremendous heartbreak. He will never get over that. NEVER. As PETER O’TOOLE remarked in BECKET: I hope you’re satisfied now.ADORED your take on this awesome film, Patty.As the Brits say, WELL DONE!!!

Comment by Miranda Wilding

Miranda -Well,thank you. I’m so glad someone finally read this post – it’s been launguishing out here uncommented on for months.I really think that being Catholic – or having been – enhances one’s understanding of “Brideshead..” If you haven’t been brought up in the church yourself, I don’t think you can fully understand or appreciate the hold it has on the various members of the Flyte family.Where is Anthony Andrews these days? He was also great in a couple of early 80s TV films, “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and one in which he played the Duke of Windsor opposite Jane Seymour’s Wallis Simpson.I actually have visited Castle Howard in Yorkshire which stood in for Brideshead Manor in both the miniseries and this film. Pretty impressive real estate. And it’s kind of other-worldy to be wandering around the ground of an estate that feels so familiar from having seen it on Masterpiece Theatre!

Comment by Pat

Pat, ANTHONY ANDREWS is still active in the business. The English actors always go where the work is and they never seem to be elitist about it.If it’s a great part, it doesn’t matter whether it’s on TV, in film or on the stage. I like that philosophy, actually. If you’re a performer, it isn’t wise to limit yourself. I suppose I’m biased because I found him so incredibly beautiful. But I really did think his acting in BRIDESHEAD was phenomenal. I’ve also been a fan of JEREMY IRONS my whole life. Though I think he acquitted himself quite well in the miniseries, I was not nearly as impressed with him as I was with ANTHONY. But that was the launch pad for JEREMY. Even he admits that the BRIDESHEAD miniseries is responsible for the career that he has today. I guess people really expected great things from ANTHONY, too. With those looks and that kind of extraordinary talent, how could they not? But I think that ANTHONY’S always preferred the stage. That’s the key. His resume over at IMDB shows a lot of TV stuff that I think most people aren’t aware of. The projects that you mentioned are probably the best known things he’s done outside of BRIDESHEAD. But apparently he does a lot of plays and that’s how he began his career. The unfortunate thing is: if you love the actor and he/she is spending all of that time doing theatrical work, unless it’s accessible to you, they might as well have disappeared. He’s also done some producing as well. Saw him interviewed (and listened to the commentary) in the BRIDESHEAD miniseries box set that I purchased. He’s still extraordinarily handsome, very intelligent and extremely funny. *swoon* The other thing to remember is: some actors don’t really want to be ANGELINA JOLIE or BRAD PITT. They want a particular level of fame or notoriety that they’re comfortable with. I think he should have been a MEGASTAR. At least as big as JEREMY.But maybe that wasn’t the particular route that he wanted to take…You went to Castle Howard???You lucky, lucky girl. That sounds like a dream. I really deeply envy you. Must’ve been cool. As I was just glancing around DOODAD KIND OF TOWN, I noticed that we have even more in common. I see that you love MIKE NICHOLS and that you’re also a WOODY ALLEN fan.Me, too. Guilty as charged, baby. Your reminiscences regarding ANNIE HALL moved me deeply. I have a real connection to WOODY and his films as well. We don’t have revival houses up here. But we have always (to some extent) had theatres where you could see classics and well known motion pictures – often decades after their original releases. When I was 16, I had my first official grown up date with my first boyfriend. He was 18. The film was ANNIE HALL. It was a summer in the 90s, not the 70s. But I become overwhelmingly nostalgic for that time just the same. Two summers later at the same theatre (just by coincidence) I went to the first film that I ever saw by myself.It happened to be MANHATTAN. God, those memories…So I powerfully connect to WOODY’S work…and I totally understand why you do as well.Great minds and all that…

Comment by Miranda Wilding

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