Brideshead Revisited has become one of the inescapable cultural objects of our comparatively recent times. Many otherwise sober critics and literary scholars regard the novel as Evelyn Waugh's masterpiece. I've always disagreed. I think his Sword of Honor trilogy is his great work infinitely sadder and wiser though for fall-about merriment it's hard to beat Scoop.
But that's almost beside the point. It looks as if every generation is going to get an adaptation in another medium of Brideshead, so rich in nostalgia for the interwar spirit of Britain, so arustle with swell clothes and the (largely) frustrated longings of both the homo- and heterosexual varieties. Even if you never read the book, you will recall from the 11-part TV version of the 1980s how the infinitely sad young men and women of the story are bedeviled by the conservative Catholicism of the Marchmain family tradition, while we passionately wish for them to shake off its shackles and follow their various sexual impulses toward happiness.
The story is really quite simple: A poor but honorable lad named Charles Ryder (played in the new movie by Matthew Goode) goes up to Oxford where he meets Sebastian Marchmain (Ben Whishaw) when the latter leans in his window and throws up on his floor. Soon enough they're dining on plover's eggs and mooning over one another. Sebastian introduces Charles to his family in this film living in a statelier home than any Masterpiece Theater ever dreamed of which includes his sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell), and his sternly religious mother (Emma Thompson, splendidly playing as far from her usual inviting self as it's possible to get). Now Charles and Julia start eyeing one another, Sebastian starts drinking himself into oblivion, and a happily romantic ending to the Charles-Julia relationship is narrowly averted.
This two-hour movie is in at least one way preferable both to the slow-moving novel and the endless television series. It requires of us about as much of our time and attention as Waugh's story demands. I'm as Anglophilic as the next person, but I'm also, by birth, a Middle-American Protestant-raised guy, taught to believe that we can make what we will of ourselves, unfettered by our parents' beliefs and our society's prejudice. This means that my patience with and sympathy for religious, ideological and class restraints on behavior on our pursuits of happiness as we choose to define it is quite limited.
I feel a certain empathy with poor Sebastian, but there's a part of me that wants to pull him aside and say, "Pull up your socks, boy." It is not necessarily inevitable that he end his life in a clinic in Morocco, totally decimated by drink. It is not inevitable that his sister abandon her rebellious engagement to Charles and accede to the family's tyrannical belief system. Waugh's whole narrative invites this kind of frustrated response. He wants to say something about the eternal values of the religious beliefs he converted to some 15 years before writing Brideshead. No matter how they inconvenience us, they are not, in his view, to be whimsically or lightly set aside. But particularly in its adaptations, that theme dubious as it seems to me takes a definite second place to decor and dialogue. We are made to feel nostalgic for a lifestyle, but we are not forced to contemplate the mischief caused by a set of tyrannical and increasingly irrelevant ideals.
This new version of the story, directed by Julian Jarrold and written by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, makes the homoerotic attraction between Charles and Sebastian more overt than it was in either the book or the TV series, but its acting Thompson excepted is more well-spoken than emotionally forceful. Indeed, the whole film seems to me more polite, less savage, than it might have been. It's possible to argue that that's true of its source material, as well Waugh wrote the book in about four months, and that haste shows in its lack of intense tragic focus. But there's no point in adapting anything unless you are aware of its weaknesses and attempt to address them. Brideshead Revisited is untaxing, pleasant enough to watch. But I'm still waiting to be seriously discomfited by it.