Some might question whether Brideshead Revisited, the classic novel by Evelyn Waugh, needed to be revisited in a film adaptation; the novel, after all, has been adapted once before in a lengthy and well-beloved British television serial. Fortunately for fans of Waugh's work, this film version of Brideshead, directed by Julian Jarrold (Kinky Boots, Becoming Jane) off a screenplay written by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, is beautifully shot, painstakingly directed, and well worth watching. For the most part, the filmmakers avoid mutilating Waugh's work, although the end result does place a greater emphasis on certain aspects (romance) and limit or eliminate others altogether (the brilliantly written discourses on religion and love that permeate the book).
The film is shot in Castle Howard, also the setting for the miniseries version, and Brideshead itself is a majestic, imposing character that looms over all who encounter it. The screenplay is rather a masterful adaptation; the film handles the compression of years through the storyline with a bit of book-ended time-jumping to both introduce us to the lead characters and close out the story, and Brock and Davies do an able job of whittling the story down to meet the needs of a cinematic experience without losing the feel of Waugh's novel in the process.
After the opening sequence, we flash back ten years in the past to meet Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode, previously seen in Match Point and The Lookout), a young man of limited means but great artistic ambition, as he's leaving for Oxford with an air of great enthusiasm. Upon his arrival at Oxford, where he's "reading History," Ryder chances to meet the aristocratic Sebastian Flyte, played here by Ben Whishaw (Perfume) as a fey, flitting gadabout who drinks to excess and studies, apparently, quite little.
An initial visit to Brideshead Castle enthralls Charles, who's never imagined what it would be like to grow up in a such splendid surroundings; that summer, Sebastian summons Charles to Brideshead after he suffers a minor injury, and Charles first encounters the rest of the Flyte family, presided over by Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). Charles is entranced by the family's wealth and power -- and by Sebastian's beautiful, elusive sister, Lady Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell). Sebastian appears to harbor his own affections for Charles, though -- which may or may not be reciprocated -- and trouble and heartache, naturally, ensue.
The central focus around which Waugh's novel revolves is faith -- more specifically, religion. Lady Marchmain, the family matriarch and resident living saint, is a woman who knows only one love: God. She's a fascinating study in contradictions, a woman for whom faith and service to God are everything, while at the same time, she lives a life of privileged splendor in an enormous castle staffed by a small army of servants. She controlled her husband, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), to the extent that he left his family to take up with his mistress, Cara (Greta Scacchi), in Venice, rather than be subjected to his wife's dominance. Sebastian has latched onto alcohol rather than faith to sustain him in his mother's wake, while Julia remains, on the surface at least, obedient to the wills of mother and God, keeping out of the line of fire as "the family shadow."
And yet, Lady Marchmain, at least in Waugh's book, wasn't portrayed as evil personified; she's a woman who believes deeply in her faith above all else, who sees it as her moral duty to guide her children -- and everyone else around her -- down the path of righteousness. She's insufferable in many ways, but not unfeeling or unkind, exactly, and Thompson manages to portray her with just the right mixture of noble snootiness, rigid adherence to a belief system, and staunch assurance that she's right and everyone else is wrong without making her into a complete monster.
The rest of the performances are excellent all the way around. I very much enjoyed Goode in The Lookout; where he played an American bad guy to great effect. In Brideshead, Goode gets back to his British roots; he's quite effective as a handsome leading man, and his performance as Charles Ryder is excellent, going from wide-eyed wonder when he first meets Sebastian and then Brideshead, to the tired, cynical man he becomes later in the story.
Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte is solid as well; he's been on my radar since I first saw him in Perfume, and I loved his take on Sebastian Flyte. I'm sure there will be those who will criticize Whishaw's Flyte as overly preening and almost queenish, but to me, that's who Flyte always was. Fans of the book and literary scholars alike have long opined that it was Waugh's intent that Charles and Sebastian were more than just close friends; this implication is played up in the film more overtly than in the book.
Catholicism and Brideshead remain, as they are in the book, characters in and of themselves. Charles's desire to have what he perceives Sebastian has -- Brideshead for a home, and all the opened doors that great wealth and class privilege bring -- guide the story. The philosophical clash between the atheist Charles and the very Catholic Lady Marchmain comprises some of the best, most subtle writing in the book, but in spite of what some may perceive as an anti-religious (or anti-Catholic) tonality, Waugh was himself a Catholic who converted to Catholicism some years before Brideshead was written, and the character arcs revolving around faith and grace are some of the most compelling in literature, though they're toned down somewhat in the film.
Nonetheless, Jarrold has done an apt job of making a well-loved book into a movie; fans of the classic novel won't find much to nitpick over, while those who've never read Waugh, but love period dramas and romances, will find plenty to like as well. Brideshead Revisited offers a nice diversion from the usual summer run of action flicks and comedies; with its lovely period costumes, beautiful cinematography, smart storyline and compelling characters, a visit to Brideshead is just the ticket for taking a refreshing break from the typical summer movie slate.