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    Brideshead Revisited

    Period porn

    This version of "Brideshead Revisited" fails to give intensity to its characters and situations, resulting in a movie that's mostly about pretty interiors and costumes.


    I am indebted to my colleague David (and I believe he is indebted to his wife) for the perfect term describing movies like, say, "Master and Commander" and "Gladiator" — the Big Men Shouting movies.

    Directed by: Julian Jarrold.
    Written by: Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock.
    Adapted from the novel by: Evelyn Waugh.
    Cast: Matthew Goode, Thomas Morrison, Anna Madeley, David Barrass, Sarah Crowden, Stephen Carlile, Peter Barnes, Hayley Atwell, Patrick Malahide, Richard Teverson, Joseph Beattie, Ben Whishaw, Roger Walker, Rita Davies, Ed Stoppard, Emma Thompson, Felicity Jones, Geoffrey Wilkinson, Michael Gambon, Greta Scacchi.
    Cinematography: Jess Hall.
    Edited by: Chris Gill.

    Related links: Official site
    "Brideshead Revisited" — the latest adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel — is no such movie, but in the same spirit I have come to think of this genre as the Rich People in Big Houses Talking movies.

    The Big House in this case is a colossal English estate called Brideshead, and the house is itself supposed to be one of the stars. Into this milieu wanders a young, embarrassingly middle-class man named Charles Ryder. Charles has gone off to Oxford, where he spends about 15 minutes before the plot has no more need of the place. He is almost instantly upon arrival warned to avoid a certain band of bons vivants, or, in the local parlance, "sodomites." Heedlessly, Charles quickly befriends one of the lead sodomites, Sebastian, a.k.a. the Lord of Something Something, a.k.a. the guy who lives at Brideshead. And so off to the Big House they go to spend the rest of the movie.

    Brideshead Revisited  
    At Brideshead, Charles meets the kindly house matriarch. "What family are you from?" she asks. "No family," he replies.

    The lady of the house, strangely, is never heard from again. The real iron lady is Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), whose main fault is that she wants everybody to be very, very, very, very Catholic. Her children shrug and drink heavily and go along with it. Charles identifies himself, though ever courteously, as an atheist, and he is fondly tolerated.

    Idyllic months ensue, as Charles and Sebastian enjoy a touchy-feely — and occasionally kissy-huggy — summer together. This is the point where, if at all possible, you would like your Rich People in Big Houses Talking movie to feature a trip to Italy, wherein your anal-retentive northern characters can let loose their long-suppressed passions. And that is how the kissy-huggy eventually extends to Sebastian's sister Julia, complicating everything.

    So there's only so much I need to say about the plot of a film that's adapted from a novel that by now you could have (unlike me) read for yourself. But even speaking from some degree of ignorance, let me try to say something halfway sensible about why it comes up short.

      Brideshead Revisited
    First of all, there really isn't any great challenge to or conflict among the characters. Not that there isn't the potential for it. How does Sebastian feel about his best-friend-forever hitting on his sister (instead of him)? Is mom tortured by Sebastian's gay tendencies and does she torture him in return? Is Charles, being neither rich nor a believer, a real friend or just a boy toy for the Brideshead layabouts to dally with until they lose interest?

    These questions are merely hinted at in the film. We can intuit some answers, but only on the thinnest of evidence. When, late in the story, Sebastian has fled the family and gone to Morocco, is this a consequence of his strict mother's judgement, and specifically about his sexuality? Well, we haven't really seen that played out — we can only guess at it, and that's a guess based on our own modern mind about the subject. Perhaps the point is that 70 years ago things were simply not discussed openly — but if they aren't discussed, they simply aren't in your movie.

    Also late in the movie, it is suggested that Charles was merely interested in the house all along. This, too, is not borne out by anything in the story up to that point. There is nothing to suggest that he is a fake friend, and although he likes the house, he appears to like the people in it more. So I just didn't believe it. If he had any grand scheme to seize the house, it too was carefully shielded not only from the family but from us in the audience as well. Again, so much is unspoken that nothing is said.

    Maybe it's just a piece of Period Porn. Oh! The beautiful costumes! Oh! The beautiful house! Oh! The antique cars! Oh! What great manners that guy has! Oh! Oh! Oh!  

    The movie's attitude toward religion is also hard to read — but at least the subject is out front, not buried under pretense. Let's say it's ambiguous rather than unreadable. Characters who once rolled their eyes at the weight of Catholicism on their backs become urgently devout in the end. Others seem to have been cut off by what (if it were clearer) might be considered a religious intolerance. These subjects may be left open for debate. Fine.

    But it's hard to say whether this story, by the end, has meant anything. And if your early-1900s English drama is relatively empty of meaning, then maybe it's just a piece of Period Porn. Oh! The beautiful costumes! Oh! The beautiful house! Oh! The antique cars! Oh! What great manners that guy has! Oh! Oh! Oh!

    That appeals to a certain kind of moviegoer. (Ahem, women, ahem.) But for me, I wish there had been more substance to it — maybe more focus on the mother-son relationship, which seems so important but is treated superficially. Maybe the novel is meatier than the movie, or maybe this is just all there is.

    AUGUST 15, 2008

    Reader comments on Brideshead Revisited:

  • Pretty little boxes   from Ben, Feb 20, 2009

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