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Brideshead Revisited

Lush Period Melodrama

The second adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's classic 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited is a sumptuous, beautifully shot, capably directed, impeccably acted period drama that explores the conflict between love and religion and sexual orientation. Adapted by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies and directed by Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane, Kinky Boots, White Teeth), Brideshead Revisited is old school melodrama at its best (or at its worst, depending on your perspective). As such, the film's themes feel out of step with contemporary concerns, but that doesn’t take away its universal appeal.

Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited as the fictionalized memoirs of Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a captain in the British Army during World War II. Stationed by circumstance on the Brideshead estate where so many of his formative experiences occurred, Ryder reminisces about Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), the heir to the Brideshead estate, college classmate, and friend, and Sebastian’s sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell). Born into a middle-class family, at the turn of the 20th century, Ryder becomes easily seduced, first by Sebastian, then by Julia, the first great love of Ryder’s life, and ultimately, by what Sebastian and Julia represent: an outmoded, but nonetheless, attractive way of life and being, a life of supposed comfort and ease as an English aristocrat.

Ultimately, though, Ryder’s beliefs (he’s an atheist) don’t stand up against Sebastian and Julia’s mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), and her strict, authoritarian Catholicism that crushes Sebastian (he’s gay, but can’t live openly in English society) and Julia, who marries an American but loves Ryder (loving Charles openly makes her an adulterer). Sebastian and Julia’s father, the Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), lives with his mistress, Cara (Greta Scacchi), in Venice.

Each character, Sebastian, Julia, Charles, even their father is inevitably forced to chose between religion, and the social conventions religion reflects, and their personal desires. Sebastian, however, emerges as the real tragic figure in Brideshead Revisited: he’s cursed both by the Catholicism he embraces as part of family tradition and Charles’ inability to reciprocate his non-platonic feelings towards him.

As anyone who’s seen the 1981 Granada Television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited (featuring a career-making performance by Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder) can attest, no good can ever come from the conflict between desire and faith, at least not in English literature written before the 1960s. It’s that conflict, however, that gives Brideshead Revisited its much-needed dramatic momentum, momentum that stalls repeatedly during the second half as the storyline and characters jump forward several years until we return to the World War II setting that opens the film. Luckily, the loss in momentum is offset by the characters’ personal conflicts as they try to find reasonable solutions to their respective dilemmas that don’t result in unhappiness.

What Brideshead Revisited doesn’t offer in terms of happy endings, it makes up for in the high production values and lush cinematography. Brideshead Revisited also has the benefit of an engaging, talented cast led by Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell, Emma Thompson (in, unfortunately, an underwritten role), and Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films). Given the time constraints involved in adapting a novel for a feature-length film and the length and complexity of Waugh’s novel, it’s a minor miracle that Brideshead Revisited still manages to convey Waugh’s major themes without sacrificing their dramatic meaning or emotional resonance.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars