Time to revisit Brideshead. It’s hard to believe it’s been a quarter of a century since the landmark Granada TV series won accolades and huge viewing figures. Back then Charles Ryder was most people’s introduction to Jeremy Irons (The French Lieutenant’s Woman came out the same year). Claire Bloom, Diana Quick, John Gielgud and Anthony Andrews’ teddy bear gave the show an unmistakable pedigree. And it lasted nearly as long as it would take to read Waugh’s novel: ten hours!
Directed by Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) from a screenplay by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, the new Brideshead is nearly eight hours shorter (133 minutes) and ditches the bear entirely, though you may be reassured to hear that Brideshead itself – aka Castle Howard – remains unchanged.
The plot has been intelligently condensed. What we lose is the social detail, the bewilderment as lower-middle class Charles (Matthew Goode) tries to find his feet among the true blues at Oxford, only to be whisked off them by the very rich, very gay Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw, virtually unrecognizable from Perfume, and stealing scenes left, right and centre).
Their friendship is not explicitly sexual – at least not on Charles’s part – but it is a kind of mutual infatuation, and for Charles the Flyte’s stately home Brideshead becomes the very heart and soul of romance. No matter that Sebastian hates the place. Enter Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell, from The Duchess), and Charles is lost to him forever.
The film – which begins with dotty scene on an ocean liner, with Charles as a famous painter, married, and meeting Julia again for the first time in years – seems to be about this disastrous three-way love story. In fact, when it catches up with itself, it’s more concerned with worrying away at the opposition between Charles, who is an atheist, and Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), a devout Catholic who won’t countenance him as a match for her daughter, let alone her son of course.
Thompson is the movie’s secret weapon. She comes on late and practically washes the floor with the youngsters. Waugh converted to Catholicism but Lady M is hardly a poster girl for the creed. Her denial has split her family apart, doomed Sebastian to drink and drugs, and left Julia clutching at straws. Yet when it comes down to it, Charles has little to put up against the magnitude of her faith.
It’s unusual to see this kind of religious tussle treated with some seriousness in a British film, and Jarrold comes into his own in these late passages. Too much of what comes earlier feels conventional and middlebrow, tastefully literary in the most boring sense. Jarrold shies away from the flashiness Joe Wright brought to Atonement, but we’re left feeling we’ve seen much of this before. And of course, many of us have.Tom Charity
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