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Wednesday 08 April 2009

Review: Brideshead lite

Posted in: Movies
By Jay Bennie - 29th October 2008

Brideshead Revisited
From the novel by Evelyn Waugh
Dir: Julian Jarrold
Ben Whishaw, Matthew Goode, Michael Gambon, Emma Thompson, Greta Scacchi.


Brideshead Revisited, the movie, cannot help but be compared to the classic 1980s miniseries. It's an invidious comparison and one I'll leave to the end of this review.

The basics of Evelyn Waugh's novel have made it through to the movie. It's set in that oft-romanticised period between the wars, in the more scenic parts of England. Charles Ryder, prim and dourly middle class falls in with Sebastian, the doomed and dissolute younger son of the ultra-grand Marchmain/Flyte family. The family is a fading and dysfunctional lot who have been screwed up since birth by the repressive Catholicism of their controlling mother. Charles's intense romantic friendship with Sebastian doesn't stop him from bedding the narcissistic daughter, Julia, and things slide slowly downhill, with just a whisper of a happy ending as the movie draws to a close.

Director Julian Jarrold and screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies have taken liberties with Waugh's small novel, rearranging the timeline here, flitting through important stuff there, and most bafflingly, leaving the poison of the family Catholicism to ooze to the surface way too late in the movie.

The sense of great change in society and personal outlooks so artfully laid out in the book is missing, but there are heaps of beautifully art-directed moments, lots of meaningful glances and this movie generally rockets along. A lightweight cast flits across the screen pleasantly enough, with Ben Whishaw as Sebastian all pout and simper, Matthew Goode as Charles starting prim and opportunistic and developing hardly at all. The massively talented Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson barely scratch the surfaces of Lord and Lady Marchmain. This all leaves Brideshead the movie lacking in gravitas and as little more than a slightly quirky and slightly bloodless romance. Despite its deficiencies it stands up rather well if viewed in this light.

Of course there is a gay storyline threading its way through the movie, as there was in the book. Sebastian and many of his coterie of university aesthetes are outrageously gay, but whereas the book left Charles' sexuality undefined and his relationship with Sebastian intimate but probably chaste, the movie commits the grave sin of allowing the pair a kiss. It's a jarring and quite unnecessary invention.

If you're over, say, 35, and have fond memories of the TV series avoid the movie. If you're under 35 it's not a bad diversion for a couple of hours and, if you enjoy it, buy or rent the TV series afterwards and allow yourself to be gently and luxuriously guided through the greater subtleties and more complex textures of Waugh's artfully observed novel spread over eleven hours of sumptuous television.

Brideshead Revisited is currently playing in cinemas across NZ. The film's official trailer is shown below.

Jay Bennie - 29th October 2008