Eugene Weekly : Movies : 8.14.08


Nice Place to Visit
But you wouldn’t want to live at Brideshead
by Molly Templeton

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED: Directed by Julian Jarrold. Written by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh. Cinematography, Jess Hall. Music, Adrian Johnston. Starring Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell, Emma Thompson and Michael Gambon. Miramax, 2008. PG-13. 120 minutes.

Charles (Matthew Goode), Julia (Hayley Atwell) and Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) in Brideshead Revisited

A 1945 New York Times review of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited dubbed the book Waugh’s “finest novel.” Waugh referred to the book — the story of a young, middle-class man caught up with the very rich, very Catholic Marchmain family in the period between the two World Wars — as his magnum opus. Director Julian Jarrold will probably not say the same about this adaptation.

It’s an improvement on Jarrold’s last film, last year’s sweet but bland Becoming Jane, but it’s what Roger Ebert neatly dubbed “mid-range Merchant and Ivory.” It’s no Howard’s End, but it’s not the dull The White Countess, either. (I gather it’s also not on par with the 1981 miniseries that starred Jeremy Irons.)

What propels this version of Brideshead Revisited is not its lead, the sleepy-eyed Matthew Goode, nor its plot, which is chiefly a love triangle with trappings of class and faith. Mostly, it’s the presence of Ben Whishaw, a name you likely don’t know yet but should, soon. Whishaw starred in Perfume, a terrible adaptation of an interesting novel, as a murderous young fellow obsessed with scent; he turned up in I’m Not There as one of the six Dylans. Narrow-shouldered, rail thin, Whishaw has the sort of features that can look strikingly handsome one minute and utterly unremarkable the next. As Sebastian Flyte, he stumbles into Charles Ryder (Goode)’s life quite rudely and makes reparations by inviting the slightly younger man to tea with a bunch of upper-class boors who mock Charles’ artistic dreams. In Charles, Sebastian finds a man who might be a little more after his own playful, flamboyant, troubled heart, though how much after that heart Charles might be is left somewhat unclear.

But it’s not until Sebastian takes Charles to Brideshead, the family estate, that things really get moving. The score goes into spasms of glory as Charles approaches the stunning, sprawling home (it does this again, with another beautiful home, later), but the fact that Sebastian leads his friend in through a hidden door, along dark, narrow passageways, tells you everything about his relationship with home and family. He’s the wayward child, the least Catholic of the family that Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson, downright regal) would like to keep strictly in line. His confidante of sorts is his lovely sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), by whom Charles is ever so swiftly charmed. A trip to Venice to visit the siblings’ father (Michael Gambon, threatening Whishaw’s position as the film’s most charismatic actor) neatly swings Charles — and the movie — out of Sebastian’s orbit and into Julia’s. None of those involved ever quite recovers.

Brideshead Revisited is both languid (you do feel the two hours passing) and crowded; two other Flyte siblings, Charles’ slightly dotty father, another suitor for Julia and a wife for Charles all squeeze into the film. But everything is muddy beyond Charles’ relationships with Julia and Sebastian. The film works to make the family’s faith important, but there is too much talk about faith and too little of it actually on display. Likewise, a former companion of Sebastian’s is required to make explicit Charles’ longing for Brideshead (and all it stands for) itself. Goode’s presence is just too reserved until late in the game; it takes an effort to imagine that there are darker depths to his interest in Sebastian and Julia, or that he’s doing anything but politely admiring the impressive Brideshead. And likewise the film asks to be admired politely, as something pretty but shallow, appealing yet not thoroughly engaging. Even the moment of Charles’ greatest loss — the one thing truly believably the result of the Flytes’ Catholocism — sits neatly on the screen, Charles’ disbelief too contained to reach us. For depth, I suspect, you’ll need to read the book — something I plan to do myself just as soon as someone returns it to the library.

Brideshead Revisited opens Friday, Aug. 15, at the Bijou.