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Review: 'Brideshead Revisited'

Lastest interpretation of Evelyn Waugh's novel is more egalitarian and faith-oriented with a superb performance by Emma Thompson as the family matriarch.

By Peter RainerFilm critic of The Christian Science Monitor / July 26, 2008

Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) is a devout Catholic who sees in atheist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), her daughter’s suitor, a pretender to the throne.

PETER MOUNTAIN/UNIVERSAL PICTURES

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The 11-hour 1981 British miniseries of Evelyn Waugh's novel "Brideshead Revisited" is among the most revered of television productions.

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So the question must be asked: Why remake the novel as a two-hour movie?

The answer, of course, is that no text is sacred and that each generation has a right – some would say an obligation – to reinterpret a favorite classic. Only if the results are mediocre should we cast aspersions on the effort.

The new "Brideshead Revisited," which was directed by Julian Jarrold and written by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, by necessity lacks the long-form pleasures of the miniseries. It also lacks Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons and Laurence Olivier, who starred in it. But the results are far from negligible.

Waugh's 1945 novel, set for the most part in the decades leading up to World War II, got its biggest boost when it was made into a mini-series. Although often reflexively rated a masterpiece, the book has always divided critics, many of whom prefer the more acerbic Waugh of such satires as "Scoop" and "The Loved One." When the novel came out, literary critic Edmund Wilson, not untypically, wrote: "What happens when Evelyn Waugh abandons his comic convention – as fundamental to his previous work as that of any Restoration dramatist – turns out to be more or less disastrous."

The movie of "Brideshead Revisited" does justice to the "serious" Waugh to an even greater extent than the miniseries. In particular, it reinforces the novel's soundings of Catholic faith.

Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is a middle-class student at Oxford who is drawn into the aristocratic high life by fellow classmate Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw). Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), much to the dismay of Sebastian, who is homosexual and alcoholic, soon becomes Charles's infatuation. When the three visit Venice during Carnivale, the Old World decadence overwhelms and Charles and Julia kiss for the first time. Confused, she runs away from him but the die is cast.

Or it would be were it not for Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), the family matriarch and an intensely devout Catholic, who sees in the atheist, middle-class Charles a pretender to the throne. The best use she has for Charles is as a chaperone for her increasingly dissolute son.

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