Brideshead Revisited

Posted on: 01 October 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews the big screen version of Evelyn Waugh's epic.

It takes a brave soul to remake a British literary classic which has already been filmed and become a superb, much loved television drama but Julian Jarrold has taken up the challenge, though sadly his new big screen version of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited falls short of expectations.

This is a poignant tale of forbidden love and the loss of innocence set in England prior to the Second World War, a period when the landed gentry began to lose some of their many privileges.

The story begins in 1925 at Oxford when young, middle-class Charles Ryder is befriended by the louche and flamboyant Sebastian Flyte, son of Lord and Lady Marchmain.

Charles is quickly seduced by his friend’s opulent and glamorous world and thrilled by an invitation to ‘Brideshead’, the Marchmain’s magnificent ancestral home.

Beguiled by his surroundings, Charles becomes infatuated with Sebastian’s beautiful sister, Julia.

As his emotional attachment to the young Marchmains grows, Charles, an atheist, finds himself increasingly at odds with the family’s strongest bond: a deep and abiding Catholic faith.

Andrew Davies, successful adapter of classic novels for television, has done a commendable job of compressing Waugh’s ‘magnum opus’ into a two-and-a-quarter hour film, while the period details, settings and costumes are spot on.

The main problem is the underwhelming performances by Matthew Goode as Charles, Hayley Atwell as Julia and Ben Whishaw as Sebastian.  Goode in particular is expressionless throughout and his relationship with Atwell lacks the right chemistry that would have brought the necessary spark to the movie.

Faring better is Emma Thompson as the matriarch, Lady Marchmain, who is well aware of the spiritual and social divide between the outsider Charles and Julia and is quick to quash the relationship between them.

Best of all, though, is Michael Gambon as the spirited, hedonist Lord Marchmain who has left his wife and the formality of Brideshead for the vitality of Venice and the passion of an Italian mistress, played by Greta Scacchi.  Later when Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die it provides the film with its most moving moment.  Indeed it is Gambon’s fine but all too brief performance in the film that stays in the mind long after the credits have rolled.

In short them this is a film which has welcome flashes of wit and is never short of interesting but which for the most part lacks emotional involvement.

Laurence Green

Released nationwide on 3rd October.

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