Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

First a scandalous novel, then a groundbreaking television mini-series, Brideshead Revisited has always been a story of some importance. One might say that, today, with the rise of religious fundamentalism, it is still more relevant in some regards, even whilst its homosexual content has come to seem tame. Yet Julian Jarrold's sumptuously adequate adaptation is the weakest version yet. All ravishing costumes and petulant glances, it scarcely delves beneath the novel's alluring surface, pandering to the hero's naive visions more often than exploring their dark side. Aside from one delicious dinner party scene, it lacks Waugh's biting wit. Yet a jewel unpolished is still a jewel, and there are treasures here for those patient enough to seek them out.

One such treasure is Emma Thompson's performance as the austere Lady Marchmain, gently domineering matriarch of the titular stately home, a 'living saint' who has reared her four children wth absolutely no concern for their happiness in this life provided that their souls might be safe in the next. Thompson brings both intelligence and sympathy to a difficult but always intriguing role, and though she has relatively little screen time, her presence lingers throughout.

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Lady Marchmain's fearsome faith tells most heavily on her middle children, the dreamy-eyed homosexual Sebastian (why do good Catholic mothers give their sons that name?), played by Ben Whishaw, and the quirky and precocious Julia (Hayley Atwell). It is these two whom discreetly ambitious Oxford student Charles takes it in turn to romance, leading to inevitable heartbreak.

As Charles, Matthew Goode is a peculiar choice, flexible enough but without the intensity which might lend him the ambiguous depths to which the character is properly heir. One cannot help but think wistfully of Matt Damon's dangerously likable Tom Ripley - it's hard to see, here, quite what it is about Charles which makes him so appealing to these more beautiful, more glamorous, richer, more popular people. This also diminishes the viewer's own inclination to take his part and so to be drawn into sharing his guilt as things start to unravel. Sebastian, always tragically aware that he has no real future, knows from the moment he shows Charles his home that it will all turn sour, and one cannot help but feel, in this version of the story, that his greater insight might make him a more interesting central protagonist.

That said, there is much here to admire. Michael Gambon is excellent as always as the children's absent father, sharing great chemistry with Greta Scacchi as his Venetian mistress. The rambling story is fairly well translated for the format and only occasionally struggles to pace itself. And there is some beautiful photography, especially the final, lingering shot, which fades like an old photograph, like the memory of times before the war, people who will soon be forgotten when so many go to die. This gives the preceding tale a sharp perspective and reveals that there's more to Jarrold than might initially have met the eye. It's just a shame he couldn't bring that clarity of vision to the rest of the film.

Reviewed on: 25 Sep 2008
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Brideshead Revisited packshot
A man reflects on his conflicting passions for a brother and sister whose lives were dominated by Catholic guilt.
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Darren Amner **1/2

Director: Julian Jarrold

Writer: Andrew Davies, Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh

Starring: Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell, Ben Whishaw, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Greta Scacchi, Jonathan Cake, Ed Stoppard

Year: 2008

Runtime: 133 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: UK


CFF 2008

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Brideshead Revisited