Brideshead Revisited

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Nicola Dove/Miramax Films
Julian Jarrold/United Kingdom 2008

With Brideshead Revisited, director Julian Jarrold further affirms what Becoming Jane, his previous film, suggested. When future producers search for an appropriate director for a British period piece, his name should be on any shortlist, right alongside Joe Wright (Atonement). This adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel scripted by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock boasts the stately eloquence one expects from such things.

The camera pans above the grand estate of the title and its perfectly manicured lawns, long shots reveal its endless hallways and tight, dark close-ups convey the pain felt by every main character. The filmmaker perfectly combines the epic visual scope and complex interiority inherent to the material. If this lush assemblage of classical compositions occasionally feels a bit mechanical, it nonetheless proves mostly compelling and rather thought provoking as well.

Matthew Goode, asked to carry a movie for the first time and doing so skillfully, stars as Charles Ryder. Waugh’s famous protagonist, he’s a middle-class student at Oxford when he befriends Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), rich heir to the Marchmain fortune. At Brideshead, the familial estate, Charles encounters Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), their domineering mother (Emma Thompson) and the particular brand of rigid Catholicism she has imposed on her children. The narrative that unfolds spans decades, consisting of the development of a love triangle involving Charles and the siblings and the complex feelings of guilt, ambition and insecurity that surround it.

The movie never shies away from the source material’s difficult themes, and the filmmakers should be credited for refusing to give in to any crowd-pleasing impulses. The absence of catharsis makes the entire production seem a bit distancing, but things play out in the only logical fashion given the enormous psychological burdens affecting the three leads. This is a story very much in tune with notions of predestination and the belief that the events of our childhood irrevocably shape our future. In other words, it is rather hopeless stuff that regards dubiously the notion that we might control our destinies.

Further, the core of Brideshead Revisited consists largely of moments of interior agony. Thus, this first feature adaptation (it was made into a British TV series in 1981) serves as a far cry from the chic world of Jane Austen cinema, despite Jarrold’s incorporation of a conventionally beautiful period epic aesthetic. Skillfully mounted and powerfully written, the film deserves an audience willing to think while digesting the familiar yet still seductive sights of crowded costume parties, lavish fountains, long-winded staircases and heaps of romantic longing.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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