Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 23, 2008 10:53 am 
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Brideshead Revisited revisited

In Brideshead Revisited, the excellent new film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s popular 1945 novel, middle-class Londoner Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) and aristocratic Catholic Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) meet at Oxford when Charles comes for his first year. The two immediately enter into an intense romantic and alcoholic friendship. Sebastian is the one who is pretty obviously gay, but Charles is seduced by his elegant friend’s daring and charm--and then when he's taken there, overwhelmed by the Marchmain family’s magnificent lifestyle at Brideshead, their ancestral estate, where Sebastian grew up. Charles, a budding painter interested in architecture, thinks Brideshead the most beautiful house he’s ever seen. The house and the family are to change Charles forever. In the story, he’s recalling all these events of the Twenties as an officer coincidentally posted at Brideshead toward the end of World War II.

The film carries the homoerotic aspect of the youthful friendship a bit further than either the novel or the glamorous 1981 Granada television miniseries version, showing the two handsome young men not only often affectionately and playfully arm in arm but in an intimate bathroom scene and, once anyway, sharing a long, lingering drunken kiss. This despite the fact that a relative sternly warned Charles to avoid "sodomites" when he first arrived at university.

Whishaw (of Perfume and I’m Not There) has a touching, wispy, vulnerable quality that distinguishes him from the earlier TV series' star Anthony Andrews, whose Sebastian was more brassy, slick, confident and social. Mattahew Goode as Charles is fine, if a bit overshadowed by the series' Jeremy Irons, whose Brideshead role first put him on the map--and by his own admission made him "fall out of love with jeans" through wearing the elegant clothes of a well-turned-out young man of the 1920’s.

Those who have not seen the miniseries, which glossily explored the book in leisurely style through eleven one-hour episodes, may be at an advantage in watching this new adaptation. That series was simply superb; it has ardent fans, including myself. It took the time to do more than justice to the satirical Evelyn Waugh's uncharacteristically solemn and lengthy book, and the memories of it are hard to shake off.

But this film version, much briefer than the miniseries yet not exactly short either at 135 minutes, has one decided advantage: because it’s a thoroughly fluid and cinematic adaptation, it shows off the plot in sharp outline.

The miniseries may actually blur that basic element. It was hypnotic, rolling on from week to week for those who first saw it, gathering an accumulation of nostalgia and melancholy, beautifully mounted and graced by the likes of John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, and Stéphane Audran. The miniseries can take the time to develop important minor characters. The book is an elaborate portrait of a generation and an era. Prior to this Waugh had mostly written short, witty novels. But this time, writing about wealth and grandeur and Catholicism, he waxes poetic and goes into nostalgic, near-Proustian detail.

When Charles meets Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwall in the film; the impossibly elegant Diana Quick in the miniseries), and lights a cigarette for her in a car, he immediately hears, in the words of the novel, echoed in the TV narration, "a thin bat’s squeak of sexuality," and the equation changes. He begins to desire Julia. Apart from her unmistakable allure she’s a way for Charles to possess the Marchmain world more completely. But this, especially in the film, immediately clouds the relationship with Sebastian, who grows cold, and simultaneously sinks deeper into dipsomania.

Inevitably in the miniseries there was more time for Charles’s profound infatuation with his aristocratic young Catholic friend and his magnificent world to fully sink in and for Sebastian’s decline into alcoholism to unwind with a greater sense of slow, horrible inevitability. The latter is memorably described in the book (repeated in the TV narration) as feeling like "a blow, expected, repeated, falling on a bruise, with no smart or shock of surprise, only a dull and sickening pain and the doubt whether another one like it could be borne." It has to be rushed a bit in the film. But the process isn’t falsified, only made more clear.

Julia and Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain (ably played by Emma Thompson), at first finds Charles sensible and polite, a good influence for the dissolute and sexually wayward Sebastian. But she can’t bend Charles to her will. It emerges that Lord Marchmain (rakishly embodied by Michael Gambon) has long ago fled from his wife’s control to Venice and lives with his Italian mistress, Cara (Greta Schacchi ). A visit to Venice with Sebastian leads for Charles to kisses with Julia and also introduces him to another equally intoxicating, non-English and thoroughly magical, kind of architectural beauty. Besides which, in Italy everybody’s Catholic, but as Cara points out, of a more relaxed sort than the cloying Lady Marchmain’s. Charles can’t have Julia as long as Lady Marchmain is around. As circumstances turn out, their long delayed idyll is brief, and happens after she and Charles are both married to other people and he’s a successful painter. Sebastian has wound up with a weak German man in Morocco, in terrible health, a saintly drunkard. Julia and Lord Marchmain have last minute returns to their faith and Charles is left out in the cold.

Viewing all three versions, book, TV, and now screen, one sees the story isn’t ultimately about sexuality or family conflicts or about Charles or about anybody really so much as it's about temptation, about the glamor of the world between the wars, seen through eyes clouded by longing. It’s also about Catholicism, of course, but does the protestant-born athiest Charles come to worship at the altar of the Roman Church--or that of a fading but irresistibly attractive English upperclass grandeur? This new version shows all these elements and highlights the durable appeal of the story. Those who are really entranced by it may want to go back and read Waugh’s book and rent DVD’s of the Granada miniseries (written by John Mortimer and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and Charles Sturridge). Since the book is elaborately detailed, the series is valuable for the way it can develop secondary characters in more detail, such as Mr. Samgrass, the annoying busybody Oxford don who spies on Sebastian for Lady Marchmain; Julia and Sebastian’s younger sister Cordelia; the stiff but decent older brother "Bridey." And in the miniseries the gay Oxford world is better conveyed through giving Anthony Blanche, a flamboyant gay man, more time and more flamboyance than he gets in the film. But the fact remains that the clarity of the film is like looking on the story under a much brighter, clearer light.

Waugh was best in his short witty early satires but he turned many a good phrase in this, his most popular (and for a time his own favorite) book. In the miniseries the style is set not only by the plummy narrative voice of Jeremy Irons but also the haunting little ditties of Geoffrey Burgen that introduce scenes and episodes. The film unfortunately uses a roaring string orchestra at unnecessary moments.

But the film makes the book cinematic without distorting the tone or outline of the book, and that’s no mean accomplishment. Later on Waugh reread his novel, which he’d once thought his best work, and was "appalled," and one can see why. Its sentimentality is so unlike him at his best. But it's richly, compulsively atmospheric and it adapts well.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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