Screenwriters: Andrew Davies, Jeremy Brock
Starring: Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon
Running time: 132 mins
Condensing Evelyn Waugh's epic novel Brideshead Revisited into a two hour film was always going to involve sacrificing key elements of the story and bear comparisons to the acclaimed 11-part 1981 television adaptation. Fortunately, superb casting and production values help to paper over the narrative cracks and present a fascinating exploration of religion, tradition, family and sexuality in the first half of the twentieth century.
What exactly does Charles Ryder want? This question increasingly permeates Waugh's poignant tale of forbidden love and desire, as Oxford University student Charles (Matthew Goode) becomes embroiled in the affairs of the filthy rich Marchmain family at their Brideshead mansion after being seduced by the flamboyant Sebastian (Ben Whishaw).
However, a trip abroad brings out his lust for Sebastian's gorgeous sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), but Charles discovers that his atheist beliefs and previous sexual indulgences do not impress the controlling Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). A battle of wills and beliefs soon tears everyone apart.
The most striking element of the film is just how relevant the themes still are in our contemporary society. The nature/nurture debate has raged on since the dawn of time, but is absorbingly presented here through the differing attitudes towards Catholicism by the characters. Is blind faith a saviour, a hindrance or merely a comfort blanket to grab when feeling down? The climactic scenes in which Julia and her ailing father make their decisions are utterly heartbreaking, yet spiritually uplifting in a bizarre way.
The principal cast is a combination of youth and experience, all faced with the difficult task of portraying their roles over the space of two decades. Everyone excels, with the lust triangle of Goode, Whishaw and Atwell all convincingly showcasing the evolution of their characters. As the troubled Lady Marchmain, Emma Thompson is deserving of an Oscar nomination for bringing such a delicate fragility to a rather ghastly figure who unwittingly ruins her own children. In particular, the wounded pride etched on her face when she begs the spurned Charles for a major favour is a masterclass in understated, yet effective big screen acting.
The script, adapted by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, unwisely opts to barely skim the surface in the blossoming sexual intrigue between Charles and Julia. Time constraints meant that certain passages of the book had to be abridged or excised, but one can't help but exclaim 'where did that come from?' when the pair suddenly become an item and we're supposed to believe in their mutual attraction. The acting helps to partially salvage this flaw, and fortunately the non-linear narrative structure does generally work well with its jumps in time.
Overall, Brideshead Revisited does a fine job of condensing the classic novel into a palatable cinematic entity. At its heart lies a gripping, complex drama that transcends its period setting to make us confront our own set of beliefs and values.
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