Brideshead Revisited (United Kingdom, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Brideshead Revisited Poster

This is a classic example of a novel being condensed and edited to fit within the limited time allowed for a screen adaptation. The 2008 motion picture adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited clocks in at 135 minutes - not short, to be sure, but not epic length either. By comparison, the 1981 mini-series, which is considered by some purists to be among the best book-to-TV adaptations of all time, ran more than 600 minutes. Clearly, a lot of work was necessary to craft the shorter version from the same material that formed the basis of the longer one. The result, while not faithful in the strictest sense to the novel, allows the basic story to remain intact and exhibits respect for the characters.

The screenplay was co-written by Andrew Davies, who might be considered the dean of TV/movie adaptations of classic novels. His pen has scribed everything from Dickens to Austen to Waugh. Those familiar with his work will note his fingerprints here, as he attempts to accentuate sexuality without undermining the source material. Nevertheless, while there are flashes of skin and a more open acceptance of homosexuality than in the novel, Davies does not turn this into a costume drama of exploitation. It is, however, faster paced than the acclaimed 1981 version (adapted by John Mortimer). I will admit to having fallen asleep during more than one episode of that series during its original run. I stayed awake throughout the entire movie, although it's no use pretending that the film will be of interest to anyone who doesn't like British costume dramas. Brideshead Revisited has a lot to recommend it, but it's only going to play to a certain audience.

Brideshead Revisited opens in the pre-dawn of World War II with celebrated painter Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) meeting old flame Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell) while on a shipboard voyage. Their encounter causes Charles to flash back ten years to his time at Oxford. During his first days at the university, he meets Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), an eccentric and often drunk student. Despite their differences in class (Charles is middle-class, Sebastian is a member of the aristocracy), temperament, and religion (Charles is an atheist, Sebastian belongs to a devout Roman Catholic family), they become friends. Over the summer holidays, Sebastian invites Charles to visit his family's estate of Brideshead, and Charles becomes smitten by both the mansion and Sebastian's sister, Julia. Although their flirtations begin at Brideshead, the presence of Sebastian and Julia's mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), holds things in check. But when the three travel to Venice to spend time with Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), the attraction between Charles and Julia finds form and Sebastian must cope with jealousy.

Class struggles form the backbone of many British period pieces but, in the case of Brideshead Revisited, religion is more of an issue than class. Lady Marchmain makes this clear during a scene when she informs Charles that she might be willing to countenance a marriage between him and Julia if the only things dividing them were class and money. However, his stance as an avowed atheist makes him an unsuitable husband. In Charles' view, no good can come of religion - not only does it ruin his chance to marry Julia, but its repressive nature has caused Sebastian to become an alcoholic. Sebastian cannot cope with the guilt associated with being a sinner and it shreds his conscience. In the end, however, Charles learns that his opinions about religion may not be fully informed.

The film exhibits the qualities - both good and bad - of the average Masterpiece Theater episode. The costumes and period detail are impeccable. The film spans the period between the late 1920s and the early 1940s with a sweep and grandeur that provides a sense of "you are there." The acting is also uniformly strong (although it's hard to imagine any Oscar nominations springing from this well). On the other hand, there's a reserve to the way the characters are portrayed which makes empathy difficult. With respect to Charles, the protagonist, there's an emotional distance bordering on aloofness that can make him difficult to like and, at times, hard to understand.

The extreme compression of the novel results in some minor continuity issues, and there are times when important scenes feel rushed or a little out-of-place. The adaptation as a whole does not flow as well as the recent, equally condensed Kiera Knightley version of Pride and Prejudice, which found a way to virtually eliminate certain subplots in order to keep the main story intact. There are times when Brideshead Revisited shows its seams. For those with an affinity for this kind of movie - and you know whether this applies to you - Brideshead Revisited is a worthy, although not superior, motion picture.

Brideshead Revisited (United Kingdom, 2008)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2008-08-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1