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Foreign Correspondunce

September 14, 2009
DVD Review: Revisiting Brideshead Revisited

by Jenna

Picture 1As I’ve said before, sometimes it takes me a while to jump on the pop culture bandwagon (i.e. Harry Potter, Twilight, that Poker Face song, etc.).  And while ‘bandwagon’ may be too strong a phrase for the likes of the recent screen version of Brideshead Revisited, I resisted my initial urge to see how completely they cocked up what is one of the greatest books of the 20th century, as well as some seminal television.  But in the end, morbid curiosity got the better of me, as it so often does, and I caved.  The fall out, more than three days later, is still ongoing.

Let me begin by discussing, for just a brief moment, the book, by the incomparable Evelyn Waugh.  Published in 1946, Brideshead Revisited chronicles the introduction of Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) to the inhabitants of the palatial estate, Brideshead, and his initial relationship with young Lord Sebastian Flyte (Anthony Andrews) and later his sister, Lady Julia (Diana Quick).  Set against the sprawling backdrop of Oxford in the 1920s, the splendor of the landed gentry’s fadinggrandeur, Venice, the decadence of sea travel in the 1930s, and finally the grim realities of England during WWII, Brideshead manages to allow the reader to sink into the hedonism of by-gone pleasures.  But far from being simply a pleasant diversion, Waugh explores a generation wrestling with the faith of theirforebearers, rejecting it, reassigning it and ultimately claiming it as an intrinsic need within their lives.  

When Granada Television produced the 11 part series, an event was launched.  For every night of its broadcast, shops shut down, pub-goers sat hushed and huddled around single televisions andBrideshead -themed parties were held to view the unfurling of Waugh’s masterpiece.  In a word, it was huge.  Having seen the complete production recently, it stands as one of the best things to ever be aired on television…in fact, for television, it iscinematically more breathtaking than most films.  What Granada managed to do was a luxury not available to most productions, they followed the original source material as closely as possible, hardly ever deviating from the original text.  Selectively using voice over for the narrator, Charles Ryder (voice over being a device that infrequently works to a film’s advantage), the production managed to seamlessly blend Waugh’s prose with performances of astounding accuracy.

So there’s the good part, and then came the film of 2008.  Oh, God give me strength.  I realize it is often a mistake to expect great things from films based on books, but I can only shake my head in slack-jawed amazement at the liberties taken with the original story.  Launching into a complete inventory of egregiousomissions and incomprehensible additions made to this latest version, while satisfying to me, would be tedious to you…as perhaps is this whole article.  I will limit myself to some of the more incredible choices made by the writer, casting crew and director.

Perhaps in the history of casting, no job could be worse than that for Lord Sebastian Flyte, played by Ben Whishaw.  Looking like a neurotic rent boy, Whishaw capers about as the homosexual Flyte in an off-putting fashion that completely misses the point of the original characterization.  Sebastian is a creature of both great beauty andirresistible charm.  He is the son of Lord Marchmain, a man described as Byronic in his youth.  Sadly, Whishaw is merely Moronic.  That Whishaw’s Sebastian should ever be the product of such a man is a suspension of disbelief I simply could not make.  He is heavy-browed , emaciated, and constantly in need of a shave.  It is understandable that a teddy bear would be his constant companion in the first 20 minutes of the film, who else could stand to be around him?

Moving on to Matthew Goode as the central character, Charles Ryder, it is a wonder that a role so rich with possibilities for an actor could be so completely unexplored.  As the years pass, his physical portrayal of Charles remains unchanged.  Maybe there was an inference that aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray were at play (another film I shudder to think of).  Perhaps Matthew does live up to his name, that is, if your idea of Goode is nothing more than a wooden pole.

So yes, it’s all very well to question choices made by casting and interpretations of characters, but to play fast and loose with a storyline that is so intelligently laid out, so beautifully composed in terms of the symmetry between Charles’ relationship with first Sebastian and then years later with Julia (HayleyAtwell), defies reason.  In an effort to ‘get things moving’ within the two hour time frame, Charles is thrown together with both Flyte siblings on his first summer spent at Brideshead.  Julia then tags along when they debark for Venice to visit Lord Marchmain (played by a distinctly un-Byronic Michael Gambon ) and his mistress.  The result of all this plot compression is that the sense of storytelling is essentially hurled at the viewer’s head. The sense of gradually building to a point, taken at a leisurely pace and with great care in the telling of a complicated and mature story is negated.  This ispre-washed, pre-cut and pre-packed literature that looks nothing like the original product.

I would heartily recommend either reading the original book, or, better yet investing the time in viewing the original series.  As for this sham version, save yourself the trouble.

Brideshead Revisited, the book:  10/10

Brideshead Revisited, the series: 10/10

Brideshead Revisited, the film:     3/10


2 Responses to “ Foreign Correspondunce ”

  1. Nat on September 16, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    Haven’t seen any of the cinematic adaptations, but I understand there’s a BBC miniseries from the ’80s based on Scoop–have you seen it?

  2. Jenna on September 23, 2009 at 12:21 am

    Hey Nat, no, I haven’t seen Scoop, but I’ll be starting a hunt for that immediately. Evelyn Waugh is one of the great pleasures.