Produced by Robert Bernstein, Kevin Loader and Douglas Rae; directed by Julian Jarrold; written by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh; cinematography by Jess Hall; production design by Alice Normington; costume design by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh; edited by Chris Gill; original music by Adrian Johnston; starring Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Emma Thompson, Hayley Atwell, Michael Gambon and Patrick Malahide. Color. 133 mins. A Warner Independent and Miramax Release.
Charles (Matthew Goode) Julia (Hayley Atwell) and Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) in front of the Brideshead estate
The long-standing institution of the literary adaptation continues to dominate the British film industry, but with fewer attempts to refresh and reinvigorate a rather staid and inherently repetitive genre. After a period in the Eighties and Nineties when a succession of socially challenging and richly critical literary adaptations pervaded our screens, adaptations set during confrontational moments of transition in British society have now become something of a rarity. With the same canonical works traipsed out like clockwork, it was inevitable that sooner or later Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 masterpiece, would be treated to a cinematic makeover (complete with the predictable “Revisited Revisited” headlines). Despite Brideshead’s position as a novel of cultural criticism and one fertile with possible connections to current concerns affecting British society, the latest incarnation of Waugh’s most lasting work compromises that potential, reducing the plot primarily to its romantic elements.
Set between the wars, Brideshead addresses the demise of the aristocracy and partially laments the changing social structure in the aftermath of the Great War. Waugh’s sympathetic, nostalgic views on the class system would be the first thing to recontextualize in a new adaptation, it would seem, perhaps to discover why the pre-war class culture still holds a cultural cachet today. While foregrounding Brideshead’s sexual theme mediates a contemporary preoccupation with gender and fluid sexualities, even the issues of repressed sexuality are muffled in this film and folded into a romantic triangle. Reinterpreting novels and focusing on overlooked aspects ought to be part and parcel of the adaptation process as one way to keep the genre innovative, but the latest Brideshead has overlooked the potential repositioning of several social and cultural themes for contemporary audiences.
Much of Brideshead’s main narrative arc remains intact from the novel. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), from the perspective of middle-age, reflects on his past encounters with the aristocratic Flyte family, including his visits to their lavish country estate Brideshead. The story begins in the early Twenties, when Charles, a first-year at Oxford, meets the flamboyant Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), a notorious reveler. Under Sebastian’s influence, Charles’s dull university life becomes a stimulating succession of parties and drinking binges, during which he and Sebastian grow very fond of each other. Charles discovers a sense of belonging and affection with Sebastian that had been missing in his life, and the relationship stretches beyond platonic boundaries.
The friends visit Brideshead briefly during the school term, and Charles is instantly taken by the allure of his friend’s home and class standing. Sebastian is reluctant to let Charles meet his family, concerned that they will repel him—fearing, perhaps, that their fervent Catholicism will conflict with Charles’s atheism. During the summer, however, Sebastian invites Charles to stay at Brideshead, with Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), for whom Charles feels an immediate attraction, the only other occupant. Eventually, Charles becomes acquainted with the entire family, including Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother and the Catholic matriarch of Brideshead, who suggests Charles accompany her children to visit her estranged husband in Venice.
On their trip, Charles pursues Julia, despite Sebastian’s obvious attraction to him. Charles has previously appeared open to Sebastian’s sexuality, culminating with the two men kissing in an earlier scene. In this version of the story, we’re treated to a love triangle, with Sebastian’s jealousy at the heart of the conflict. Although Charles and Julia’s romance is essentially a subplot in the novel, occurring some years after Charles and Sebastian part ways, here it is placed center stage and framed as the cause of Sebastian’s downfall into alcoholism. Opening with a snippet of their reunion a decade later, the film wastes no time in positioning the heterosexual romance at the fore. Returning to this moment later, the second half of the film is focused on the couple, both eager to escape unhappy marriages, before Julia’s Catholic bent causes her to call off their engagement.
In a somewhat unsurprising effort to spark new interest in Brideshead (and presumably secure a large viewership), the filmmakers, in conflating the two relationships into a triangle, turn Charles into the driving figure through the competition between Sebastian and Julia for his affection. Yet Charles appears to exert little control in either relationship, allowing his infatuation with the Flytes and Brideshead to guide his actions. Although revising Brideshead to foreground the romantic plots is hardly an outrageous proposition, the film’s streamlining of the relationships eschews Waugh’s measured complexities in the process.
The film implies that Charles’s brief flirtation with Sebastian was a mere curiosity, a leisure activity to accompany their heavy drinking sessions, and not as meaningful as his feelings for Julia. The film thus undermines its own attempt to expose repressed sexuality through Charles’s ambivalence about his own desires. Sebastian’s sexuality, however, is more clearly delineated, and after witnessing Charles and Julia kiss, Sebastian withdraws into his drinking and rejects Charles’s further attempts at friendship. While the film introduces controversy through an explicitly homosexual element implied in the novel, by favoring the romance with Julia it retains a conservative stance consistent with the Catholic viewpoint that Sebastian’s sexuality is meant to challenge. In failing to move past his love for Charles—even though he does take up with a needy lover in his escape from Charles and his family—Sebastian is punished for his sexuality, which the film shows as immature and as much a part of Sebastian’s childish persona as his iconic teddy bear.
Emma Thompson as the matriarch, Lady Marchmain
Brideshead was last put on screen in the revered 1981 Granada/ITV television serial, a high watermark in British broadcasting history. The filmmakers behind the 2008 Brideshead at least show some ambition in attempting to craft a new version to rival Granada’s achievement. While ticking many of the boxes for a modestly successful adaptation, the new film is overly sleek and far too stylized, removing any weight from the markedly selective and restructured plot. Perhaps the departure of the original director David Yates (opting to limit his forthcoming output to the Harry Potter franchise), who was replaced by Julian Jarrold, is partly to blame. With Yates went the original high-profile cast of Jennifer Connelly, Paul Bettany, and Jude Law—it’s not hard to suppose that this film would have been made with a decent box office return in mind.
Despite these changes, however, the main production team behind the film remained the same. The screenwriters are hardly strangers to the genre, particularly Andrew Davies, who has had a hand in many British adaptations over the past two decades, including stalwart BBC productions of Middlemarch (1994), Pride and Prejudice (1995) and Bleak House (2005). Jarrold is another regular in the adaptation and period film industry, but despite all their experience in a well-worn field, the team seems muddled about the direction of this film, more eager to raise some eyebrows than to pay greater attention to the potential of Waugh’s story as a conduit for cultural criticism. The reluctance to tease out any relevant social issues leaves the film with a tangible air of complacency.
The recent spate of adaptations, including Pride and Prejudice (2006), director Joe Wright’s Atonement),The Painted Veil (2007), last year’s Christmastime Oliver Twist—a lamentable lump of coal from the BBC—and Jarrold’s Becoming Jane (2007)—a piece of historical fiction that took a reprieve from the constant stream of Jane Austen adaptations to imagine Austen’s own life—all suggest that the problem isn’t so much a “dumbing down” of the texts as a desire to shortcut narrative subtleties and complexities, perhaps for the sake of accessibility, but more likely as a rationale for propelling these adaptations with glossier, Hollywoodized aesthetics and inflated sexuality. Brideshead is thus the latest in the recent cycle that undercuts the social significance of the source text, replacing it with a superficial, prettified visualization.
In particular, Brideshead is weakened by a lack of character development that both simplifies the sexual tensions and stunts potential social critique that might arise from the characters’ conflicting desires. While the romantic triangle has earned the film many critics, another alteration worth exploring is the one-dimensional Lady Marchmain, played without much imagination by Emma Thompson. Lady Marchmain’s complexity has been removed by repositioning her solely as a character of some malice, rather than the kind but domineering woman that Waugh crafted. In part, her unsettling and even sinister demeanor is where we find the film’s most direct rendering of Catholicism as a threatening force. Her religion becomes a tool for her powerful grip on the family, even on her exiled husband. Consequently, as Lady Marchmain’s manipulative qualities influence our reading of her religiousness, the lasting influence of Catholicism on all the characters (Charles included) feels uneasy and problematic.
Again, the film falters by over-playing the ending as a shortcut to repositioning the Flytes’ Catholicism as a moving and resonant force. Despite Charles’s strongest efforts to combat the Flytes’ religion, the film concludes with Charles—now an officer during WWII and stationed, by chance, at Brideshead—unable to extinguish the last burning candle in the Flyte chapel. The suggestion here, that the Flytes’ Catholicism did in fact affect Charles’s later life, would be more believable had it been delivered with a measure of ambiguity about his possible conversion. Instead the film renders the moment as deeply sentimental and as nothing other than a divine reconciliation. Having spent so much time challenging the Flytes’ extreme Catholicism as oppressive, the suddenness of the transformation—on the part of Charles and the film—is painfully overstated, perhaps as a compensatory gesture, but one that eradicates any narrative intricacy established in the prior two hours.
Despite the film’s numerous failings, there are a handful of moments when one feels something salvageable could emerge from the otherwise trite interpretation. In particular, Jess Hall’s cinematography provides occasional moments of pleasure through lush, dreamlike images that readily evoke the perspective of Charles’s memory. The summer at Brideshead—shown most lucidly in a montage of Charles and Sebastian at play, drinking copious amounts of wine, and leisurely enjoying the estate together—is an outstanding example. This hazy, all-too-brief sequence is the one time where the film’s stylistic choices seem to reflect the mood. The rich oranges and warm browns that dominate up until this point suddenly makes sense as they collide and blend in a wistful spell that accentuates Charles and Sebastian’s inebriated days and nights. But here, again, the mood of their summer together, while enjoyable to watch, is compromised by the film’s lack of subtlety in the newly invented portions of the narrative. The unnecessarily heightened tension between Sebastian and Charles gives way to an incongruous shot of the two kissing. Even more distracting is the addition of Julia’s presence at Brideshead, an alteration that clues in the audience that she is soon to replace Sebastian.
The heavy-handedness of the romantic plotline is most disappointing given the potential of the text. When Brideshead was last adapted it, along with Granada’s later The Jewel in the Crown (1984), which revisited Britain’s complicated history with India, held lasting significance for its direct confrontation with problematic moments within living memory. Both adaptations were significant reflections of Thatcher’s post-Empire Britain coming to terms with its new social structure. A quarter of a century later, however, and Brideshead’s era is distanced and easily stationed as historical tourism, free from the necessity to tie pre-war class society to complicated notions of Blairite middle-class Britain.
Julia is received
A few strands of Brideshead could have been creatively reworked and applied to reflect modern Britain—the blight of binge drinking for starters. The only significant connection between this film and contemporary Britain lies in the depiction of Catholics as a patently marginalized group, reminiscent of how Tony Blair describes his own struggle to keep his Catholicism out of the public eye. Blair only converted after he left his post as Prime Minister, worried that it might present a problem for the British public. Catholicism remains outside the mainstream in British society today, and here a chance was lost to use Waugh’s vindication to help present Catholics as perhaps an unfairly maligned group. In the wake of Blair’s conversion (not to mention the ease in tensions since the Good Friday Agreement), there has been a slight opening for re-examining the role of Catholics in Britain, most evident in new plans from Downing Street for constitutional reform that would allow a Catholic monarch for the first time in over 300 years.
Given its social themes and religious subject matter, the latest Brideshead is particularly odd, with barely any consideration for direct contemporary contextualization. At the very least, Brideshead could have done more to flesh out the relevance of the novel’s muted sexual themes. This superficial and sexualized Brideshead may feature an aesthetic form that potentially appeals to a wider audience, but the film never comes close to making a case for why its amendments are necessary. Nor does it support them by addressing wider concerns within British society that no doubt account for the novel’s continuing hold within the public conscience.
Oliver Pattenden has completed an MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia.