Mellow drama

Based on the by-all-accounts-classic British novel I haven’t read a lick of (and following by more than two-and-a-half decades the widely praised, Jeremy Irons/Anthony Andrews/John Gielgud/Claire Bloom/Laurence Olivier-headlined ITV serial I haven’t seen a moment of), Julian Jarrold’s big-screen adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is a tense, exceedingly well-dressed film that, upon leaving the theater, I needed a little help understanding.

(Sure you wanna keep reading what I have to say?)


Charles Ryder (Goode), is our protagonist, a British captain during the second World War whose pointed recollections of his complicated relationship(s) with the extraordinarily wealthy Flyte family serve as our primary narrative. The film takes us to pre-war England, where a bright-eyed Ryder leaves his less-than-extraodinarily wealthy father (Patrick Malahide, in a small-but-memorable role) to begin his studies at Oxford. There, he is initially taken under wing by elder cousin Jasper, who’s all too enthusiastic to indoctrinate a fellow Ryder with the Oxford orthodoxy in which he himself has been steeped. Charles, though, quickly finds that he prefers the company of a more exotic species: epicurean über-heir Sebastian Flyte (Whishaw) — devil-may-care dandy, fop to top all fops, the-coxcomb-formerly-known-as-Prince, as it were. What results is an instant, intense, and rather ambiguous affinity, and it isn’t long before an initially reluctant Sebastian has invited his new friend home to pass the summer with his family at Brideshead Castle. It’s here that Charles first comes into contact with Sebastian’s icily overbearing, rabidly Catholic mother and, not least, his sister, Julia.

Brideshead is a picture singularly bathed in opulence. Thematically, certainly, wealth and the lack of it loom suffocatingly over every plot point and interaction. Visually, the production design at work here is the sort that sets some Oscar voters a-slobbering — and rightly so, as the sets and costumes are glittering wonders to behold. But the film’s most remarkable treasure is its cast. Nearly every character we meet, principal or no, is an unqualified standout, from Flyte patriarch Lord Marchmain (Gambon) and his Italian mistress (Scacchi) to the exquisitely bland older Flyte brother, Bridley (Ed Stoppard). The performances I couldn’t peel away from, though, came courtesy of the unsurprisingly spectacular Emma Thompson, as Lady Marchmain, and Whishaw, who is so immensely, profoundly talented that if he doesn’t pick up an Oscar within the next five years, I might punch somebody.

And yet, despite all my gushing, I was left a bit cold by the film. I’ve an inkling that I wouldn’t have been if I’d better known what I was in for (or had read the book), but the Catholicism vs. atheism theme that the film settles on for the latter goings was, to me, much less interesting than certain combustible character relationships that seemed to simply fade, rather than giving me the explosions I greedily anticipated. Generally, I’m all for subtlety, but this time, for some reason, the restraint didn’t satisfy me. Ah, well. It’s probably on account of my being the Ugly American.

Perhaps I should try EastEnders? •