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BRIDESHEAD REVISITED(director: Julian Jarrold; screenwriters: Andrew Davies/Jeremy Brock/based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh; cinematographer: Jess Hall; editor: Chris Gill; music: Adrian Johnston; cast: Matthew Goode (Charles Ryder), Ben Whishaw (Sebastian Flyte), Hayley Atwell (Julia Flyte), Emma Thompson (Lady Marchmain), Michael Gambon (Lord Marchmain), Ed Stoppard (Bridey Flyte), Felicity Jones (Cordelia Flyte), Greta Scacchi (Cara), James Bradshaw (Mr. Samgrass), Jonathan Cake (Rex Mottram), Richard Teverson (Jasper), Joseph Beattie (Anthony Blanche), Rita Davies (Nanny Hawkins), Patrick Malahide (Charles’ Father); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Robert Bernstein/Douglas Rae/Kevin Loader;Miramax Films and BBC Films; 2008-UK)
“The costume period piece never amounts to more than middle-brow soap opera fluff, but it’s enjoyable on its own terms even if not exactly Waugh.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Julian Jarrold (“Kinky Boots”/”Becoming Jane”) directed film is based on Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 best-seller, which served as the basis for the popular BBC 11-part 1981 television miniseries–which was in step with the novel. Writers Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock change key plot points to jazz things up and dilute Waugh’s strong beliefs in Catholicism that leaves it with ambivalence about religion–something Waugh was certain about; the costume period piece never amounts to more than middle-brow soap opera fluff, but it’s enjoyable on its own terms even if not exactly Waugh (except as far as the theme of moral responsibility). It was elegantly shot at the grand Castle Howard (same one used in the miniseries), as well as Oxford, Venice and Morocco.

As a youth in the 1920s Waugh was not your picture of virtue: his early years chronicle an attempted suicide, affairs with both genders, a troublesome divorce, and heavy drinking. By the time he wrote the novel, when he was 41 and very Catholic, he was a changed man. Some critics, at the time, believed the novel to be nothing more than religious propaganda. The novel’s sentimental love story tells about a couple who end their adulterous romance for moral reasons, as Waugh gloriously depicts upper-class Brits during the Jazz Age.

In the 1920s, Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is the upward mobile middle-class kid from London’s Paddington district who attends Oxford to study history and aspires to be an artist. On his first day at Oxford, a wealthy drunken effete named Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), a member of the “sodomites,” pukes in his bottom floor dorm room. Thus begins their romantic friendship and a soon to be invite for Charles to visit the Marchmain family’s majestic castle home of Brideshead, when during the summer school break frail love sick Sebastian craves his company and feigns a foot injury. Also there are Sebastian’s attractive headstrong 19-year-old sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), his imperious pious Catholic mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), his pixie-like youngest sister Cordelia (Felicity Jones) and religious dullard older brother Bridey (Ed Stoppard). Sebastian is disappointed when he finds that Charles, in a reserved way, lusts after Julia and most of all falls in love with Brideshead. The zealous Catholic regal mom, because of her possessive love and rigid beliefs in God, has driven away her worldly husband, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), who’s living in Venice with an Italian mistress (Greta Scacchi). The domineering religiously fanatical mom has also forced her religion on her children and has deformed them all, with only Sebastian trying to rebel but still too intimidated by mom to openly disobey her. The manipulative Lady Marchmain detests that Charles is an atheist, but believes he’s reliable and bargains with him to look after her dissolute son. When Charles can’t resist the temptation of Julia, he alienates both Lady Marchmain and Sebastian. Mom immediately arranges for Julia to marry a wealthy Catholic, Rex Mottram (Jonathan Cake), and at her wedding Charles is banished from Brideshead when the stern mom accuses him of not looking after Sebastian by giving him money to go drinking and then allowing him to show up drunk at the celebration.

The weak-kneed Charles is more openly opportunistic (masking his ambitions by his passivity) and less likable than he was in the novel, and by the conclusion (the film bookends both wars, as it opens at the end of World War I and ends at the beginning of World War II) it’s hard to sympathize with him that he lost both Julia (to her mom’s tyrannical religion) and the pouting, fading flower Sebastian (who has been driven to drink because of his hatred of his mom and has become a morose alcoholic living in a Morocco clinic).

It’s a sumptuous production, the cast is solid (Emma Thompson and Hayley Atwell are superb, as well as Patrick Malahide as Charles’s sardonic father) and, if this type of undemanding melodrama about how the upper-class live and play is your cup of tea, then I think you’ll be pleased unless you compare it to the book or the superior miniseries or more demanding drama.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”