Directed by Julian Jarrold. Starring Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Haley Atwell, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Greta Scacchi. (2008, PG-13, 135 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 1, 2008
I’m not sure that Evelyn Waugh, a Roman Catholic convert, would have endorsed this accomplished adaptation of his 1945 novel about the pre-World War II chasmic divides of class and religion and one man’s efforts to scale one while rejecting the other. Goode plays the lowborn, aspiring painter Charles Ryder, a role originated by Jeremy Irons in the 1981 miniseries. New to Oxford, Charles is unformed and attention-starved, but very quickly he becomes the pet of Lord Sebastian Flyte (Whishaw, Rimbaud from I’m Not There). One might be inclined to call the ever-tippling Sebastian a playboy, but he’s too guileless for that, and too puppyishly besotted with Charles. (As with the novel, the parameters of their friendship are never explicitly laid out, although the film does introduce a drunken kiss.) The film’s first passage, with its bucolic setting and collegial passes by way of naked fountain dips, is fine enough, but Brideshead Revisited becomes a far more interesting picture when it puts the frolicking aside to explore the insidious sway of Sebastian’s homestead of Brideshead, which is as much an idea as it is a house (and more like a mausoleum than a place to call home). There, Charles meets Sebastian’s comely sister, Lady Julia Flyte (Atwell), and his severe – and severely Catholic – mother, the Lady Marchmain (Thompson), and it is then that the film begins its inevitable uptick toward tragedy. Brideshead Revisited spans several decades, and it’s worth noting that everyone plausibly ages – which sounds like an easy enough trick of etched lines and a daubing of gray at temples but is more intriguingly telegraphed, via the two male leads, in the hardening of one and the softening of the other. As his character calcifies with age and heartbreak, Goode loses his boyish mien and turns out to be a more compelling actor than his earlier scenes (or his earlier résumé) would suggest, and Whishaw, who goes from a lanky, loose-limbed adolescent to a broken and emaciated barely-there man, delivers an open-faced, lacerating performance. She gets less screen time, but Thompson’s Lady Marchmain is chillingly effective, and by the time she delivers her tour-de-force monologue, at once banishing Charles while further snaring him in Brideshead’s airless clutch, one realizes how layered the script by BBC stalwart Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock really is. Yes, there are the practically codified stringed swoons of a period picture – and they’re pleasurable swoons, too. But the film, a distinctly secular take on Waugh’s religiosity, is far more interested in the battle of blind faith vs. rigid unbelief and its devastating effects. Herein, everyone is complicated – by their station, their philosophy, their God – and everyone is complicit.