RUNNING TIME 135 minutes
WRITTEN BY Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies
DIRECTED BY Julian Jarrold
STARRING Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Greta Scacchi, Hayley Atwell
Here it is at last: the intelligent movie filmgoers have waited for all year. The film version of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited transforms one of the quintessential novels of the 20th century into one of the grandest, most enriching films of 2008. The 11-part 1981 miniseries was such a milestone in TV history that purists who watch the four-volume DVD set might squabble about the merits of reducing so much artistry into an almost two-and-a-half-hour film. But in the hands of director Julian Jarrold and writers Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, all of the high points of the sprawling story are artfully preserved in a compelling narrative that leaves you stunned. Trust me. The movie they have made of Brideshead Revisited is a masterpiece.
Captain Charles Ryder (sensationally played by Matthew Goode) is a moody British officer in 1944 whose brigade is stationed in a deserted castle called Brideshead, which was once owned by the aristocratic Flyte family. Memories rustle in his mind as he is swept back to 1922 and the days he spent at this estate as a poor Oxford student. Flashbacks cover the next 22 years of his life, which turns into something of a saga as he battles disillusion, failure, heartbreak, class differences and the personal demons of atheism. He enters the sanctified world of the arrogant Flytes quite by accident when their effete and insufferably spoiled youngest son, Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), throws up through an open window in Charles’ unfashionable ground-floor campus digs. Feeling guilty, and intrigued by the handsome loner, Sebastian invites Charles to his elegant rooms for a dinner of Champagne and robin’s eggs, claiming his teddy bear Aloysius refuses to talk to him until he apologizes. Oxford is where worldly and corrupting things always happen in British films to nice boys who turn out to be either homosexuals or spies, or both. For Charles, being sucked into the exotic world of a titled family of staunch Catholic peers in the realm of Protestant England evokes feelings of great emotional intensity. Seduced by the splendor of Sebastian’s country manor at Brideshead—and by Sebastian, too, although their relationship through two decades remains homosexually platonic—Charles becomes a pawn in a power struggle between Sebastian and his draconian mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), to save her sinful son from self-destruction. But alas, his friend is doomed to drink and sodomy, and on a trip to Venice, where his hedonistic father (Michael Gambon) lives with his Italian mistress (Greta Scacchi), Sebastian sinks deeper into depression when Charles shifts his affections to the Flytes’ lonely, mysterious daughter, Julia (Hayley Atwell). Lady Marchmain, who thrives on instilling Catholic fear, guilt and faith in the hereafter in her children and their guests, clashes with Charles, a dedicated heathen who lives in the here and now, and everyone is subjected to the tragic consequences. Julia becomes engaged to a stuffy American fortune hunter (Jonathan Cake), Charles is ejected from Brideshead, Sebastian ends up sick and destitute with a dying lover in Morocco, and the old dragon who dominates and rules her family, manipulating them like hand puppets, faces her own third-act finale decimated by grief.
Fine as they are, Emma Thompson lacks the regal beauty and graceful coldness of Claire Bloom in the miniseries, and Michael Gambon is no Laurence Olivier, especially in his death scenes. The role of Charles’ own pompous, self-absorbed father, so memorably played by John Gielgud, has been reduced to an afterthought. But the two men of central focus are compelling and tenderly nuanced: Matthew Goode, last seen as the brother who brings home the tennis pro who orchestrates his sister’s downfall in Woody Allen’s Match Point, and the punishingly frail, aesthetic Ben Whishaw, most vividly remembered as the mass murderer in Tom Tykwer’s Perfume, makes a matchless counterpart as the colorful, catastrophic Sebastian. If the film has detractors among literary purists, I feel certain even they will recognize it as eloquent and unforgettable as a movie adaptation can be. Waugh’s descriptions of the nostalgia of vulnerable youth are beautifully captured in clear, crisp images. The conflicting themes of an outsider longing for a social status he can never achieve, willing to endure any humiliation to get it, and the ruinous lessons learned by living above his station are clearly defined, and the root of the Flyte family madness that has always been buried in Catholicism has never been so expertly explained. I don’t remember any film better accomplished in the detailing of what it feels like to be welcomed into a beatific world of such wealth and privilege, then demolished by the desire to be a part of it. Some can call it this year’s Atonement, but Brideshead Revisited is a consummate, devastating artistic triumph in a class by itself. After a summer of horror, it makes you grateful to go back to the movies again. You leave Brideshead Revisited with hope restored and sanity preserved. This is art, preserved in aspic.