Hello. My name is Cam and I have not read Brideshead Revisited, the acclaimed novel by British writer Evelyn Waugh. Hadn’t even heard of it, to be honest. I’ve also never waded through the cherished 11-hour Jeremy Irons-led miniseries of the same name. Now, you probably haven’t either, but I just want to cover all the bases before I begin my review of the first theatrical adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, directed by Kinky Boots/Becoming Jane auteur Julian Jarrold. So, keep in mind that any heretical comments I make from this point forward come from a place of classic Brideshead-ian ignorance. Thank you for your patronage.
Brideshead Revisited luxuriously recounts the story of young, lower-class Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a talented painter and proud atheist, attending prestigious Oxford University a tad prior to WWII. Frequently ridiculed for his modest beginnings, he nonetheless makes friends with the free-spirited Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), a flamboyant homosexual with a troubling fondness for the sauce. Their chaste flirtations lead to Charles being brought to the Flyte’s majestic estate, known as Brideshead. A chance meeting with Sebastian’s rebellious sister Julia, played by the stunningly gorgeous Hayley Atwell, leads to Charles becoming a de-facto member of the family. The brood is presided over by the sibling’s fiercely aristocratic and devout Roman Catholic mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), who is intolerant of Julia’s unruly behaviour, and Sebastian’s “deviant” lifestyle. During a summer in Venice, which finds our three youthful protagonists living in the relaxed home of the sibling’s divorced father Lord Marchmain, played with weary cheer by Michael Gambon, love begins to blossom between Charles and Julia, much to Sebastian’s chagrin. This affair, and the increasing flaws in Sebastian’s character, serves as the main focus of the story, which traces the trio’s relationship over the duration of about ten years, through sorrow, passion and undying bonds.
It must be said, above all, that Brideshead Revisited is a gorgeous film to take in. Director Jarrold, trodding familiar ground, has found new ways to capture the peaceful beauty of the English countryside, the ancient splendour of Oxford’s stony structures and the enchanting majesty of Venice. His eye for beauty, and in finding the extraordinary within the ordinary, agreeably elevates the occasionally routine material.
Matthew Goode, a relative newcomer who previously appeared as a thug in The Lookout and Mandy Moore's boy-toy in Chasing Liberty, is a good anchor for the film. We can understand his fascination in the face of such overwhelming opulence, as well as his frustrations in watching his friends fall victim to the older British traditions which favoured classism and rigid religious laws over happiness and freedom. Goode never pushes too hard, instead letting his co-stars deliver the more dynamic work.
The supporting players are a casting agent’s dream. Ben Whishaw captures Sebastian’s pain and isolation perfectly, while not shying away from depicting the character’s many unlikable qualities. His big scene, in a hospital courtyard is both heart-rending and infuriating at the same time. Similarly, Emma Thompson, an actress known for warmth and charity, is a suitably fearsome presence as Brideshead’s undisputed ruler. Her misplaced guilt and repressed anger can be witnessed seething just below the actress' luminous skin. It’d be nice to see her tackle more hard-hearted women in the future. Michael Gambon, always a joy, plays all the right notes as Lord Marchmain, while Patrick Malahide, as Ryder Sr., is amusingly clueless. Major recognition must also be given to the captivating Atwell, whose plucky and fiery heroine is guaranteed to win the hearts of almost every single male audience member.
While I don’t think Brideshead Revisited is a great film (It’s a little bumpy in its latter half), I think that fans of Jane Austen adaptations and British romantic epics will find much to enjoy here. In this bustling summer of extravagance, it’s a pleasant reminder of our own freedoms, as well as the impulsive heartaches of true love. I enjoyed my stay at Brideshead, and recommend you make the trip.
3.5 out of 5