‘Brideshead Revisited’ fails to measure up to book, TV series
I sat transfixed through 12 hours of “Brideshead Revisited” when the British TV series aired on PBS in 1981. So I was looking forward to what the big screen could do with Evelyn Waugh’s great sprawling novel about life among the rich and famous who went to hounds by day and partied all night in great country homes during the years between two world wars.
Not much, it turns out.
That star-crossed love story, which so captured audiences, first on the page and then on television, seems shrunken here, tired, flat, bleached of all its painful yearnings, rich nostalgia for what we think were happier times, and the major conflict of the piece, free thought versus an unquestioning belief in an all-knowing, all-caring, all-punishing God.
Oh, the trappings are there, most importantly the grand house of Brideshead (in reality an estate in Yorkshire), which represents for Charles Ryder a life he wants desperately to adopt. Ryder, the story’s narrator, is a poor boy and aspiring painter who is introduced to that fantastic existence by Sebastian Flyte – a lord and heir to Brideshead – at Oxford, where both are studying.
Ryder’s only friend is a cousin who claims to have contempt for the sons of the aristocracy. Flyte’s pals are those wealthy aristocrats, a caustic bunch with little patience for the likes of Ryder, who doesn’t even own a tuxedo, until it becomes clear that their leader has taken a shine to him.
The two young men couldn’t be more unlike. Ryder is a student and serious about his painting. Flyte is pretty and effete. Obviously, he’s profoundly unhappy, a condition he has been assuaging with alcohol, and, now, by trying to curry favor with Ryder.
Overwhelmingly flattered by Flyte’s attentions, Ryder jumps at the chance when his new friend invites him to the Flyte family seat, Brideshead.
Director Julian Jarrold presents this exquisite piece of real estate with all the panoply he can muster. Seen at first from a distance, the majestic house sits among rolling hills, placid ponds, towering trees and a large ornate fountain that shoots rainbow-flecked sprays high into the air and beckons naked boys to jump in.
From the moment Ryder sees this architectural marvel, he is seduced, and his life is changed forever.
He is recalling all that and his ensuing encounters with Flyte and his family when the film opens. It is years later, World War II is on, and Ryder has found himself back at Brideshead, empty and dark now and serving as headquarters for his military unit.
So, this is a story of remembrance, of sunny summers and girls in gossamer dresses, of heterosexual infatuations and homoerotic dreams.
It is the fantasy of better days that drives all period pieces, that gives Jane Austen’s sparkling and witty novels extra depth, that keeps us turning the endless pages of “Middlemarch” and wandering through Henry James’ convoluted character studies.
So, what happened here?
All the elements are present for the kind of luxurious reverie we all want when we pick up a book or look at a movie set in the England of another era, an era of better clothes and better manners, where everyone had a clever quip on the edge of his tongue and a future as bright as m’lady’s diamonds.
Well, a few things happened. Julian Jarrold was hired to direct when another director, David Yates, had a conflict. Then, the original A cast – which included Paul Bettany as Charles Ryder, Jude Law as Sebastian Flyte and Jennifer Connelly as Julia, Sebastian’s sister and Charles’ ultimate love – was replaced, respectively, by such relative unknowns as Matthew Goode, Ben Wishaw and Hayley Atwell.
There are, indeed, a couple of first-rate performers here: Emma Thompson as Sebastian’s gorgon of a mother, and Michael Gambon as her renegade former husband who had the good sense to escape Brideshead and move to Venice, where he lives in delicious sin with the always lovely Greta Scacchi.
It might have been wise – when Yates had to leave the project to direct “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” – if the producers had forgone the entire enterprise. I’ve only seen one other of Jarrold’s movies – “Becoming Jane.”
But, based on that bloodless rendering, I would have kept him as far away as possible from any work that required a romantic sensibility and the ability to evoke a visceral response to even the most far-fetched of situations.
If Charles and Julia – married to other people – happen to show up on the same ship in the middle of the ocean after years of not seeing one another and, within minutes, are making love, I want to be caught up in their fervor, not wishing the scene were over.
But perhaps the biggest victim of Jarrold’s mishandling of the material is Thompson. Admittedly saddled with an unsympathetic part, that of a mother who has put the fear of God in her children through her adherence to the strictest interpretation of Catholicism, she is further burdened with being made to look ridiculous by an iron-gray wig that has been styled into a hairdo so contrived one has a hard time focusing on her wonderfully expressive face.
In case I haven’t been clear, “Brideshead” shouldn’t have been revisited.
The Patriot Ledger