Ah, love. So complicated. With so many options, what's a young man like Charles Ryder to do? There's Sebastian Flyte, the gay classmate who invites freshman Charles into a social circle and longs for more than friendship. There's Sebastian's sister Julia, who attempts to elude Charles' lustful stirrings. And then there's Brideshead, the fabulous familial estate of Sebastian and Julia. I mean, get a load of that dome...have you seen those spires? Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is, of course, exceedingly more complicated than this rather odd love triangle—at heart, it's Waugh's investigation of Catholicism from the point of view of the ambitious, atheistic Charles Ryder.
With the 1981 ITV/PBS miniseries, Waugh's novel got a deluxe and beloved adaptation, but Brideshead Revisited has never been a feature film. That oversight is rectified by director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane), working from a screenplay by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock. Matthew Goode plays Ryder, who chances into the upper-class world of a Catholic family and their astonishing estate. The complicated relationships with both the family’s troubled scion Sebastian (Ben Whishaw of Perfume) and his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell of Cassandra's Dream) fuel the ongoing story, which has undergone the significant revision and compression necessary to make a 133-minute film from the source material.
Purists are already squawking, but the film makes sense on its own dramatic terms. The problem is one of time. There's not enough to deal thoroughly with each plot development, and as paced out here, the story toddles along through those key scenes while rarely hitting a stride of dramatic engagement. Jarrold shows better taste here than he did in Becoming Jane, but it seems increasingly evident that he's not an actor's director. With mostly strong actors here, it's hard to notice his tin ear for emotional truth, but he allows caricature to carry the scenes of Ryder's detached, vaguely insulting father (Patrick Malahide, who seems to be auditioning for an expanded, comic role).
The novel's abortive homosexual romance becomes more overt, though still ambiguous. Jarrold depicts Ryder, for his part with Sebastian, as emotional needy but sexually disinterested—theirs is an undying but chaste love forged during an idyllic summer at Brideshead ("If only it could be like this always," Sebastian says. "Always summer. Always alone. The fruit always ripe"). Julia, on the other hand, becomes an object of lust, complicated by her approved marriage to a Catholic man. And then there's Brideshead, a sort of "signing bonus" for the man who marries Julia. Ryder calls it "the most beautiful house I've ever seen...magical."
Not surprisingly, the film perks up with the respective appearances of Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson as Lord and Lady Marchmain, the parents of Sebastian and Julia. Free-spirited Lord Marchmain has absconded to Venice with his lover Cara (Greta Scacchi), while devout Catholic Lady Marchmain dourly presides over Brideshead. Lady Marchmain sizes up Charles—present as Sebastian's guest—as a threat to her children's souls. With a kind of civil severity, she manipulates the young people to serve her idea of the greater good, an idea not shared by Charles. Eventually Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead, under circumstances that further test religious devotion, family dynamics, and Charles' wishful relationship with Julia.
The new film is true to the novel in its consideration of the partly negative, partly soulful social value of Catholicism. By proffering an atheist hero whose fate and tragic missteps lead him face to face with the question of personal faith, Waugh ultimately endorses Catholicism, but not before acknowledging its social fallibility in the hands of mortals. Jarrold's Brideshead is no classic, but it does hold interest, in part by dealing honestly with the intriguing religious themes and in part for its fine cast, with Thompson's peerless performance—one that resists easy caricature—a standout.