As much pressure as there is when making a period film to keep contemporary viewers interested, extra hurdles are added when the period film is based on one of the most critically acclaimed books of the twentieth century. And the anxiety doubles when it was also adapted into what most devotees assumed was the definitive take on the source material in a wildly popular, classic twelve-hour British miniseries. In taking on Brideshead Revisited, instantly one runs the risk of being labeled a copycat as well as going against conventional wisdom of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but by employing celebrated, award-winning screenwriters Andrew Davies (Mr. Adaptation himself having penned updated versions of some of literature’s most beloved works) and Last King of Scotland scribe Jeremy Brock, the filmmakers hoped to tackle that problem head on. However, in telling the story of the poor underdog Charles Ryder (Match Point’s Matthew Goode) who gets tangled up in the lives and loves of the wealthy but ill-fated Sebastian Marchmain (Ben Whishaw) and his headstrong sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), the results are mostly mixed.
Sumptuously photographed and with amazing attention to detail, including filming in Yorkshire’s awe-inspiring tourist attraction, the Castle Howard which had first doubled for the Marchmain’s home Brideshead in the prior television adaptation, Becoming Jane director Julian Jarrold’s sophisticated film is sure to rake in Oscar nominations in the fields of art and costume design as well as a probable nomination for Emma Thompson as the devoutly Catholic, domineering Marchmain matriarch.
And while no doubt one has to admire the intelligence of such a gorgeous work, especially in its daring summer release opposite mindless comedies and special effects driven superhero films which will definitely come as a much needed quiet treat for film reviewers everywhere to heap praise onto the movie, I felt like it kept viewer’s emotions at an arm’s length. Never shaking the museum feel that proves so daunting for period works-- much like another critically loved classic book turned Miramax film, The Wings of the Dove, I had a hard time becoming invested in this rather icy tale. This was especially difficult when considering that—while Charles is positioned as its hero—frequently, he’s the most unlikable character onscreen and often we’re left wondering just whom is using whom when it comes to his dealings with the Marchmains. While one never has to unconditionally love a lead character, the question then becomes whether or not you feel invested in the person’s plight and with Charles, most of the time, I didn’t.
Ultimately, I felt that that while it’s a beautiful looking work bolstered by its talented cast (Whishaw, Goode, and Atwell no doubt have excellent careers ahead of them), I sensed a barrier between myself and the production, which I can only liken to flipping through a photo album with a friend who’s just returned from a trip and can’t wait to show you hundreds of their photos. While the anecdotes and visuals are amusing enough, we realize we’re missing the full effect which was no doubt best experienced by reading Evelyn Waugh’s original novel and/or in the lengthy lauded miniseries.
This being said, I applaud the bold decision to bring the homosexual and extramarital infidelity plots to light and overlap the previously three separate tales in changes that the production notes explain were approved by the Waugh foundation. However, despite a great respect for the brilliance of Davies, I couldn’t help but imagine that this Brideshead adaptation may have been best served by brining in a more contemporary styled yet equally literary and thematically similar writer in the form of The Hours scribe Michael Cunningham. In addition to The Hours along with the brilliant A Home at the End of the World and even in his unsuccessful but imaginative interpretation of the novel Evening, Cunningham routinely explores love triangles and the struggle to come of age while reconciling one’s own desires within their immediate environment and familial obligation. Thus, being that the Brideshead filmmakers made the decision to “out” Sebastian in a greater way than in previous versions as well as try to fight against the Masterpiece Theatre trappings of most period films, by bringing in someone who isn’t usually lumped together alongside the usual suspects of the highbrow British fare, they may have breathed some much needed life into a claustrophobic and slightly overly long adaptation.