Sunday, March 20, 2011

Brideshead Regurgitated

Hell to the No.
When the Brideshead Revisited movie came out, I told myself that I would never watch it. From what I could tell of how the writers had reshaped the script, it seemed like a horror. The BBC miniseries was one of the glorious discoveries of my youth, and I’ve read the book countless times, so I was going to be tough to win over.

Sometimes snap judgements are right on target. Man, did they ever botch it. It was impossible for me to see the movie with fresh eyes, because in every shot I glimpsed the ghost of the original BBC miniseries, and the ghost had a lot more flesh on it. To succeed the film should have made me forget the first series with a fresh vision.

Much Better

For those who don’t know the story, it goes like this: Charles Ryder, a disillusioned WWII Army captain, finds himself stationed at Brideshead estate, forcing him to think back on his youth at Oxford, where he met and befriended the beautiful and doomed Lord Sebastian Flyte and became embroiled in a family drama spanning decades. An aspiring artist, Charles finds inspiration in Sebastian’s family home, the very place were Sebastian feels most unhappy. What begins as a jubilant friendship quickly disintegrates as Sebastian spirals into alcoholic depression. Charles sets out on his own, much later meeting up with Sebastian’s sister, Julia. Both married, they begin a passionate love affair. Running throughout the story is the theme of religious faith, primarily Catholicism, which Charles at first rejects but later (it is implied) embraces.

What someone unfamiliar with the book could take from the new movie, I have no idea. The two halves were folded back in on themselves and stitched together to save time. In the novel and miniseries, Charles and Julia do not at first cross paths very often and they don’t pay much attention to each other. This movie turns the relationship into a love triangle, which transforms the friendship between Charles and Sebastian into a sordid little cliche. Other elements that are important in the novel and series are given a perfunctory mention and then the plot chugs along. Urgh. Consider:

Why does Sebastian drink?
Brideshead BBC: Sebastian drinks because he’s an alcoholic with suffocating, manipulative mother who keeps him on a short leash and stokes him regularly with religious guilt.
Brideshead movie: Sebastian drinks because his boyfriend wants to sleep with his sister.

Who is Aloysius?
Brideshead BBC: Aloysius is Sebastian’s teddy bear, both an affectation that endears him to his Oxford classmates and a symbol of his dangerous desire to cling to childhood. Aloysius is the name of a Catholic saint who watches over youth.
Brideshead the movie: Huh? Oh, he’s that teddy bear you see mabye twice. His name is Aloysius?

Who is Anthony Blanche?
Brideshead BBC: Anthony is the flamboyant Tiresias figure in the novel, appearing periodically to deliver enigmatic warnings to Charles about the Flyte family. Turns out he is right about most things.
Brideshead movie: Where is the old bugger? He’s around here somewhere. Ooops, missed him.

Jeremy Irons, the original Charles Ryder
I could go on. The movie is a long exercise in missing the point. The movie doesn’t shy away from faith, but it doesn’t do the theme any favors, either. There are rosaries and religious pictures, and sometimes the gang chat vaguely about being heathens or atheists. It has all the heft of a bag of feathers. The role of art as a secular religion is nowhere to be found. Charles just starts sketching a bit, but that’s sort of lost in the headlong rush to tie up the loose ends that barely had time to flap about in the breeze in the first place. You arrive at the big deathbed conversion scene wondering what all the kerfuffle is about.

Has Charles been changed by any of this? Who knows - but he doesn’t snuff out the eternal flame in the chapel. Whoa.

Matthew Goode as Charles Ryder
When it comes to casting, you can’t could beat the original, though there are some notable actors in the new version, including Emma Thompson and Albus Dumbledore - I mean, Michael Gambon.

Matthew Goode makes a decent Charles Ryder. He even has some of Jeremy Irons’ mellifluous tones, but since this version has almost no voice-over narration, you don’t get to enjoy that.

Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte. 
Anthony Andrews as Sebastian Flyte
Ben Whishaw vs. Anthony Andrews. Oh, there’s no question here that Andrews wins. Whitshaw looks like he has consumption, and though that might be realistic for advanced alcoholism, Sebastian is supposed to be beautiful.

The start of it all.
So, how did I come to watch this mess that I knew from the start would be a disaster and that I never ever intended to watch? Well, it’s because SOMEONE has a crush on Matthew Goode. And it isn’t me.


  1. I read the book a long time ago but confess I have never been tempted by any of the adaptations.

  2. ya, i saw it, i mean we saw it (the new one) and we were underwhelmed. never saw the original series, i think now i'm going for it.