It’s a tale of bedeviled aristocrats, catholic guilt and large palatial residences that played very well in 1981 when it became a British TV staple and more-or-less introduced the world to Jeremy Irons. Eyebrows were raised when this remake was announced; the New York Times has already called it ‘Brideshead Regurgitated’.
Despite the success of Atonement, a more-or-less a straight crib of both the book and the original 1945 novel by Evelyn Waugh, is there really a need for the honied sirops, the curds and whey, the wasps in the jam jars, of such hysterical and nostalgic feasts? Well – just look at the news. Nostalgia sells when the world seems to be turning itself to the business of ruin.
Brideshead Revisited is the story of a fairly ordinary young middle-class man Charles Ryder who goes up to Oxford in the 1920’s and is immediately drawn into the social circle of a louche, gay aristocrat named Sebastian Flyte. Flyte is highly unstable and prone to alcoholism, but Ryder is seduced by him, especially, like a Jane Austen heroine, when he sees his house at Brideshead. But on a trip to Venice Ryder is drawn to Sebastian’s equally seductive sister Julia, and Sebastian embarks on a drinking frenzy which never comes to an end. The film begins and ends in WWII when Ryder has been billeted at Brideshead and moons around the empty, decaying grandeur of it all remembering the past.
Director Julian Jarrold is necessarily reaching for a high standard here. Some of the casting is better than the original. Some of it is worse. The best moments are when Ben Whishaw (as Sebastian) and Emma Thompson (as his mother Lady Marchmain) are onscreen. The worst are turns by the otherwise splendid actor Michael Gambon, doing a kind of Ricky Gervais impersonation as Lord Marchmain (a role rather better inhabited by Laurence Olivier), and by the chief casting of Matthew Goode (Matchpoint) as Charles Ryder, who gives a performance so lumpen and unappealing that the mystery of why everyone throws themselves at him becomes the elephant in the very large silk-wallpapered Drawing Room. This character always was a winnying arriviste but somehow Jeremy Irons still made him appealing.
It’s a long film at 132 minutes and the magnificence of the original TV series was that it allowed the story to breathe. Here Ben Whishaw (who camps his character up substantially compared to Anthony Andrews version) disappears far too early in the film and what we are left with is the dreary, dank melodrama of the endgame; miserable marriages, catholic deathbed scenes and so on. The lightness of the Oxford years, and the stolen summers at Brideshead, have been trimmed back. And it’s a mistake. Despite the presence of a scriptwriter as good as Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones), the roll of the story has been misjudged and weighted towards the theme of guilt.
That said, this film is perfectly good in many ways. And it’s also perfectly pointless. As predicted.
** Two Stars Out of Five
Already released in the US, Brideshead opens in UK cinemas October 3rd