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Brideshead Revisited (2008)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Country Home"
2 stars

The thing about most Great Literature is that when they were being written, their authors were less concerned with making them into Great Literature than they were in creating engrossing stories that contained fascinating narratives and compelling characters and which would be entertaining to read. In many cases, being designated a work of Great Literature can be the worst thing in the world for a book, poem or play because once it gets admitted into the pantheon, readers become so obsessed with understanding its greatness that they are unable to relax and just let it works on its own terms. (If you doubt this, try sitting through your average high-school English class sometime as the works of Shakespeare are transformed from surpassing works of wit and drama into dreary and impenetrable slogs.) The same thing often happens when someone gets the bright idea of transforming a work of Great Literature into a feature film--the makers become so paralyzed with the notion of making something profound and important (not to mention award-worthy) that they wind up turning the stories into airless and dramatically inert museum pieces that contain none of the life and energy of the original works. Occasionally you luck out and get something like the Keira Knightley version of “Pride & Prejudice,” a film that was more interested in retelling Jane Austen’s enduring story in a lively and energetic fashion that in simply providing viewers with a series of pretty pictures and which was all the better as a result. Most of the time, however, you wind up with something like “Brideshead Revisited,” an absolutely lifeless and leaden adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh classic (not to mention the basis for the acclaimed 1981 British TV miniseries) that tries so hard to be Respectable and Important that it will cause most viewers to either fall into a deep sleep or run fleeing from the multiplex out of sheer boredom and frustration.

Set mostly during the period between the two Great Wars, the film stars Matthew Goode as the resolutely middle class Charles Ryder and as the story proper opens (less a couple of framing sequences), he is off to study at Oxford in preparation what will presumably be a staid and button-down existence. That all changes one night when an inebriated fellow student, the brash, well-bred and outlandishly free-spirited Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) pops his head in the window in order to become unwell, if you know what I mean. The next day, Sebastian sends Charles a lunch invitation in order to make up for his indiscretion and the two quickly become fast friends--Charles is attracted to Sebastian’s charmingly impulsive behavior and aristocratic airs (he is the kind of guy who described a glass of wine by saying “It’s a shy little wine--like a gazelle”) while Sebastian is clearly attracted to everything about Charles. Soon, Sebastian takes Charles for a visit to his family’s ancestral home of Brideshead Castle and the interloper becomes absolutely fascinated with the beautiful and opulent trappings of the manor that range from a massive art collection to Sebastian’s sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell). However, while Charles sees nothing but the surface splendor of a life that he has long wished for himself in the halls of Brideshead, Sebastian sees it more as an especially stifling gilded cage and that is underscored by the eventual return of his mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), a woman who has allowed her devout Catholicism to curdle into bitter disdain for practically everything that isn’t explicitly approved by the Pope--this attitude has already caused her husband , Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) to flee to Venice to live with his earthier mistress (Greta Scacchi) and is now alienating her children as well, save for snotty suck-up son ().

Despite some ill-disguised class-based design, Lady Marchmain is convinced that Charles might be a sober and steadying influence on Sebastian and when Sebastian and Julia make plans to travel to Venice to visit their father, she asks him to accompany them on their journey. What she doesn’t seem to realize, however, is that while Sebastian plainly has feelings of a certain nature for Charles, Charles has similar feelings for Julia--then again, perhaps she does realize this and is using the interloper as a way of straightening both her children up and getting them back onto the straight and narrow path of piety before they become hopelessly distracted by the messiness of passion in the manner of their father. Perhaps inevitably, thing sour between them during the trip for the expected reasons and in the ensuing years, they wind up drifting apart from each other--Sebastian sinks deeper into alcoholism and eventually turns up in Morocco, Julia marries and grows estranged from Canadian war profiteer Rex Mottram (Jonathan Cake) and Charles continues to find himself caught in their orbits while going off to war and establishing himself as an artist. Eventually, he and Julia rekindle their affair and make plans to divorce their spouses and marry, a move that would finally give Charles the woman, home and life that he has always yearned for. Alas, things are never quite that simple in extended novels about the British class struggle and by the end, Charles comes to realize that, to quote another classic piece of writing from England, you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find that you get what you need.

In bringing “Brideshead Revisited” to the screen, director Julian Jarrold and screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock have two nearly insurmountable obstacles to overcome--the challenge of collapsing Waugh’s sprawling narrative into a couple of hours of screen time and the existence of the 1981 miniseries, a work that is still revered to this day as one of the finest productions ever to be made for television (and one which is readily available on DVD in a special edition from Acorn Media, a company that specializes in British television imports). These are challenges that few people would even dare to consider attempting and while I suppose that Jarrold, Davies and Brock deserve some credit for even attempting such a thing, that credit has to then immediately be taken away because they have pretty much failed completely in overcoming either of those hurdles. Of course, I guess it is a little unfair to compare this film to that earlier television production because that was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events where everything seemed to work and the extended running time afforded by the miniseries format meant that virtually every aspect of Waugh’s original narrative could be translated to the screen without having to sacrifice anything in the process. This time around, the filmmakers only have a couple of hours to tell the story in 133 minutes instead of 11-plus hours and in trying to wrestle the story into a workable running time, Davies and Brock have given us a greatest hits approach to the material that recreates the best-known moments but which lacks all of the nuance of the book or the miniseries. The film rushes from one event to the next without any rhyme or reason in ways that will likely outrage those familiar with the story and confuse those who aren’t. As a result of these misfired attempts at telescoping the narrative, we get no real sense of either the shifting relationships or of the years unfolding as the characters fall in and out of each others lives. Another thing that has been lost as a result of the streamlining is the humor that appeared in Waugh’s original work. Although “Brideshead Revisited” was a more seriously conceived novel than many of his more overtly satirical works, I do seem to recall a certain comedic bite to some of the material, especially the stuff involving Catholicism. Needless to say, the idea of laughing during something along the lines of “Brideshead Revisited” must have struck someone as anathema and as a result, there is hardly a light moment on display here at all--it is all as stuffy and oppressive as the culture that it wants to be indicting.

The other central flaw with the film is that it has, for the most part, been painfully miscast with actors who have no real feel for the material. Of course, any cast would almost inevitably pale in comparison with the group assembled for the previous adaptation, a team of modest talents that included the likes of then-unknowns Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews and such wily veterans as Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Jane Asher, Stephane Audran and John Gielgud. That said, even if you are somehow able to put the memories of these players aside, the actors in this version still come up short. Matthew Goode and Ben Whishaw have done good work before (in “Match Point” and “Perfume,” respectively) but here, there performances are so stiff and unconvincing that they feel like high-school students who have been unwillingly cast in their first school play and who are more concerned with bumping into the ornate furnishings than in creating compelling characters. As Julia, Hayley Atwell (whom you may recall as the seductive ingénue who provided a much-needed spark to Woody Allen’s “Cassandra’s Dream”) is certainly beautiful and feels a little more at home with the period trappings than Goode or Whishaw but she comes across as too wan and reserved to be convincing as the focus of Charles’ romantic obsession. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the veteran actors who steal the show here despite their limited screen time. Michael Gambon has a lot of fun with his turn as the garrulous Lord Marchmain and Emma Thompson does a fairly stunning job of suppressing her normally likable screen presence in order to give viewers a version of Lady Marchmain who is, of course, cruel and heartless in the ways that she shuts out anyone who doesn’t subscribe to her particularly repressive brand of religious faith, yet still remains somewhat sympathetic. Unlike her co-stars, she gets what Waugh was getting at and brings the character to life with such clarity that you may find yourself wishing that she had be hired to write the screenplay (as she did for the adaptations of “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride & Prejudice”) as well.

And yet, because it is one of the few overtly serious films to emerge in a season that has otherwise been overrun with superhero sagas, animated epics and dumb-ass comedies, there is a chance that “Brideshead Revisited” may strike a chord with audiences who ordinarily stay away from the multiplexes in droves during the summer. However, if they do respond positively to the film, it will no doubt be because of what it doesn’t contain--namely car chases, explosions, flatulence jokes or ham-fisted double entendres--than for what it does. The film is a noble effort but alas, it is a doomed one (if it were at all successful, wouldn’t it be coming out in the fall as a prestige release rather than as a mid-summer throwaway?) and unless you are so pressed for time that you simply cannot spare the extra nine hours under any circumstance, there is absolutely no reason to sit through this uninspired Cliff’s Notes edition when the full-scale miniseries, not to mention the actual book, is both so vastly superior and so readily available.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17266&reviewer=389
originally posted: 07/25/08 00:00:00
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User Comments

2/08/11 jimmy smitts Why does Brian always talk in food metaphors? 2 stars
7/11/09 Jared Kreiner Much better than the remake 5 stars
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  25-Jul-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 13-Jan-2009


  DVD: 13-Jan-2009

Directed by
  Julian Jarrold

Written by
  Jeremy Brock
  Andrew Davies

  Michael Gambon
  Matthew Goode
  Greta Scacchi
  Emma Thompson

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