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.
Jarrold and his screenwriters play up the role that Catholicism plays in the lives of these people, and this is entirely in keeping with the intentions of Waugh, a Catholic convert who, in his novel, worried the ways in which faith and fundamentalism intertwined. It is to the credit of the filmmakers that, without skimping on the damages done to her children by Lady Marchmain, they do not deny the spiritual force of her faith or the resonance that it has not only for herself but also, almost against their will, for her children. The great question posed in "Brideshead Revisited" is whether Julia can finally choose her love for Charles over her belief in Catholicism, and the ways in which this is worked out are so emotionally convincing that we in the audience are placed in the same position as Charles. We are simultaneously stunned at the resolution and resigned to its inevitability.
Jarrold plays down Waugh's own entrancement with the splendors of the upper-class – the splendors that would fade in the postwar world. Waugh was raised in the middle-class and attended Oxford, and he obviously employs Charles as his stand-in. But, as a novelist, his idealization of the aristocracy can be obnoxious. Jarrold does not deny the allure of this world – the Marchmain's ancestral estate, with its endless lawns and spouting fountains, is a beauty – but he's not infatuated by them. He does not, as Waugh did, see the passing of this caste system as a tragic comedown. This is a most egalitarian adaptation.
The cast is uneven. Because Charles is essentially an observer, Matthew Goode has the most difficult role, and he's a bit of a blank. (Unlike in the novel, where he moves from agnosticism to Catholicism, here he remains an atheist throughout.) He doesn't convey enough of Charles's ache for acceptance, or his upwardly mobile connivances. Whishaw avoids for the most part the kind of scenery-chewing campiness that his role all too easily could have fallen into. (More so than the book or the miniseries, the movie makes explicit his homosexual connection to Charles). Atwell's ripeness makes it easy to understand Charles's intoxication. You get the feeling that, even if she were low-born, he'd still go gaga over her.
The film has two major performances. Michael Gambon is marvelous in a too brief role as the boisterously profane Lord Marchmain, happily exiled with his mistress in Venice. This lapsed lord represents the life force his lady must deny in order to preserve her faith.
Emma Thompson demonstrates that she can play an older woman with the same vividness as a much younger one. Her performance is remarkably courageous – not just in the way she has allowed herself to age but, much more important, in the way she refuses to turn this unwavering woman into a harridan. She makes us understand Lady Marchmain's resoluteness and the sorrows from which it issues. It's a great piece of work in a movie that, whatever its failings, deserves to be seen even if you swear undying allegiance to the BBC mini-series. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for some sexual content.)
[Editor's note: The original version misidentified the production company behind the 1981 Brideshead