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Brideshead Revisited

Julian Jarrold's new adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, with a screenplay by Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies, may be set in the semi-distant past of interwar England, but it does not spend much time opening a window to the period. What you see is all you get. Some viewers will find this approach disciplined and blessedly free of self-indulgence, while others will feel shortchanged. It is clear that what interests Mr Jarrold is telling a compact tale of ambition and betrayal, committed by, not upon, his hero, Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode).

Charles is not a villain. He is simply your upper-middle-class Everyman, culturally unprepared for his contact with the grand and bent world of the Flyte family. The grandeur is manifest in the family home, Brideshead impersonated, for the second time in film, by Castle Howard, ancestral home of the Earls of Carlisle, themselves members of the great Howard family. Like the Howards this is the bent part the Flytes are Roman Catholic. In ways that Mr Jarrold does not trouble to explain to American audiences, this alien, once-forbidden religious allegiance, combined with vast worldly resources, makes the Flytes almost incomprehensible to Charles. The only way for him to deal with them is as a reverse-snob who likes them no matter who they are.

He is dazzled by their house, though. The fascination is aesthetic rather than crudely material: Vanbrugh's stately home is an earthly paradise in his eyes. Charles doesn't understand why his new friends, Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) and his sister, Julia (Hayley Atwell), can't just relax and see what a great house they've got. He can't see, that is, why they don't just take all the inconvenient old baggage of their mother's religiosity and toss it in the Venetian canal outside their scapegrace father's palazzo.

It is a measure of this film's excellence as a drama that we are not privy to Charles' callow outlook. A voice-over at the beginning tells us that the one residue of his time with the Flyte's that he is sure is all his own is guilt. That ought to be warning enough. It signals the filmmaker's intention to buck the story's natural tide, which would lead us to sympathise with Charles as a well-meaning but naive outsider who is taken up and then dumped by the grandees.

In that vernacular reading (which I don't say isn't Waugh's, not having read Brideshead Revisited in over forty years), Charles's principal appeal is his novelty. In Mr Jarrold's view, however, Charles has the immense charm for the Flytes of well-mannered but forceful understatement. This is not just a matter of dinner-table repartee. It is displayed with astonishing openness in a clotted scene toward the end of Sebastian's "honeymoon" with Charles. After a long bout of tinging the pavement with priceless vintages, Sebastian leans in to kiss Charles. When he pulls away, his face is tight with confusion: it is just possible that he has ruined something. But Charles is wholly at ease, almost condescendingly so. The kiss is just one more of the many pleasures of life at Brideshead. Sebastian keeps saying that he wishes these days could go on forever, because he knows that they can't. Charles isn't so sure.

This light-handed (if not exactly light-hearted) affair is disturbed by the arrival of Julia, a young woman who excites Charles's manliness. He doesn't merely, or perhaps even principally, want to bed her; he wants to take care and charge of her. Mr Goode makes Charles's helpless attraction to Julia startingly clear, as he does Charles's other desire: a wish that his passion might be allowed to play out as such passions are "supposed to" do, with Julia as his wife. He wants, in short, to bring her down to his own level. And not only does he want to marry a goddess, but he'd like to make her home comfortable for mere mortals into the bargain. On top of all that, it never occurs to him that he has broken Sebastian's heart.

That may be because Charles is certain that Sebastian's heart was broken long ago by his mother, Lady Marchmain. Emma Thompson plays this great lady with such rich aplomb that you can imagine her sitting down to record a few searing truths about Charles Ryder. The movie is agnostic as to whether Lady Marchmain is a dragon or a saint, but when the ailing woman makes a piteous appeal to Charles to rescue Sebastian from his exile in Morocco, she is every bit the anguished mother.

At the end, Charles demonstrates that he is ready to do anything it takes to win Julia (despite the fact that both of them are married to other people), except what Julia's first husband did: become a Catholic himself. When Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) returns to Brideshead to die, queering Charles's triumph in the process, Charles is disgusted by the summoned priest and the bedside prayers, seeing the pious parade as so much old-family mumbo-jumbo that only interferes with fresh young lives.

Brideshead Revisited is intelligent and beautiful to look at, but it does not dawdle over the softer, more nostalgic moments. You can look at them, but don't expect the characters to go into raptures. Expect, rather, to hear Julia and Sebastian insist, quite believably, that they detest Brideshead. Sadly, Charles Ryder never really hears them. (July 2008)

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