There are artists out there whose personalities or philosophies we might deplore, but whose works we cherish. Evelyn Waugh is exactly that to me. If I could resurrect him and sit him down to roast beef and pudding, the meal would devolve into hair-pulling and china-smashing before the gravy got cold. We’re that different, and I’d be that impatient with his insular conservatism, his nostalgia for an England that never existed for most of the population, his snobbery and his misogyny. The sentiment, of course, would be mutual; Waugh would hate me. I’m a New Woman with fangs. But even if his works express views I can’t support, I love Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust, and read them with pleasure, and envy Waugh’s ability to turn a phrase and weave a theme. He’s one of the most significant and talented of the English Modernist writers, and his novels get to me. He may have been looking back with longing on Past Times while many of his peers were leaping forward, but he captured one half of the early twentieth-century Western zeitgeist so perfectly that his books are essential to our understanding of his era — more so the more time passes.
Given this, adapting Brideshead Revisited for the screen is a daunting task. Film adaptations of classic literature are squabbled over heatedly, I think, because many of us anoint those adaptations with a didactic duty we don’t foist on other types of movies. You gotta teach the novel, some would say, every time you film it, so you better get it right; novel adaptations are still more book than film in the minds of many. I’m not sure where I sit in that argument, but I know it’s a red one, and that it’s pretty much unavoidable. Not only did Julian Jarrold and his screenwriters have to do justice to one of the most vital (late) Modernist texts ever written, they also had to compete with one of the best literature adaptations I’ve ever seen: the 1981 BBC miniseries starring Jeremy Irons, John Gielgud, Laurence Oliver and Claire Bloom, which gave itself 10+ hours to feed on a book that, at barely 300 pages, is a lot richer than its length suggests. Because of the greatness of the novel and the extraordinary quality of the miniseries, comparisons of a new movie to its source or predecessor are even less fair than usual, here. As the Pajiba staff is so fond of braying, the book-to-film transfer almost always means the eliding of characters and the collapsing of story and the shifting of focus, and complaints on those points are both tired and irrelevant to the medium in question. All of those changes work their way, corrosively, into Jarrold’s movie. His movie doesn’t have 300 pages or 10+ hours to go deep, so the only sane thing for a reviewer to do is to look at his film as a stand-alone piece of cinema.
Brideshead Revisited — the film — opens during WWII but focuses on the salad days between the Great War and the rise of Hitler. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), a painter turned soldier, is stationed at an English estate owned by a family he once knew. The estate — Brideshead — is deserted now, its splendors choked by dust-covers, its gardens filled with military tents, and its façade commented on laconically by Ryder’s fellow soldiers. We barely have time to take in the scene before we’re launched backwards into the past — to Ryder’s vernissage on a transatlantic liner — then launched back again, to Ryder’s first days as an Oxford student. Despite the best efforts of Ryder’s father and officious cousin Jasper (Richard Teverson), Ryder pals up with Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Wishaw), a fledgling alcoholic who hangs around with a group of “sodomites” and a teddy-bear named Aloysius. Ryder, whose upbringing was sterile and not quite uppercrust, is smitten by Sebastian’s Wildean world of epigrams, boutonnieres and champagne at noon. He’s smitten by Sebastian’s family estate and by his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), but he’s not quite smitten by the idea of man-sex per se, which leads to a standoff between Ryder, his best friend and his best friend’s sister. It leads to Sebastian drinking himself sick, which is helped along by the absence of his dissipated father (Michael Gambon, who makes anything better) and by the Catholic hand-wringing of his tyrannical mum (Emma Thompson, who really shifts her gears downward for her role as Lady Marchmain). It leads to loveless marriages, adultery, and to a generalized melancholy characteristic of eras in which class and religious lines were distinct, divorces were verboten, and sexuality had a single sanctioned dimension.
I could go on at length about Jarrold’s problematic take on Waugh’s novel but, as promised, I’m not going to focus on that here. I don’t have to. For one, I trust our commentators are only too happy to do that for me. I also have plenty to gripe about cinematically; there’s something about Jarrold’s period pieces that stoke my bitch and scathe at the expense of reason. They leave me irritated and dissatisfied in an inarticulate, unproductive kind of way, and make me lament film trends at large. When I got home after Brideshead and IMBd’d the director, the fact that Jarrold is the same guy who plagued us with Becoming Jane explains a hell of a lot, but it doesn’t inspire me with erudition. Jarrold is a void of a filmmaker who swathes total-vacuum scenes with pretty enough bunting. He’s like the midatlantic bastard of Haggis and Minghella; Minghella may have been a better filmmaker than Haggis, but I also hold him partly responsible for a certain kind of hackery which has infested British filmmaking since every BBC-funded ponce with a lens decided they wanted to make the next The Talented Mr. Ripley. Minghella helped bring Hollywood to Dover Beach in the sense that, more and more, even British adaptations of classic novels seem to be getting dumber. For instance, Jarrold plays up Brideshead’s love interests, and not in the way they deserve to be played up (embedded as they are in the text), but in a way that elbows Waugh’s story into Nicholas Sparks territory. I blame Minghella — fairly or not — for the Julian Jarrolds’ and the Mira Nairs’ and John Maddens’ ooh shiny! approach to meaty narratives that evaporate in their hands. There’s just no heart beating under all those expensive costumes, and Brideshead — while better than Becoming Jane and while not particularly awful — just seems to be going through the motions.
Those motions are mainly technical. There are lots of sweeping shots of Oxford, Venice, Morocco, and whatever estate passes for Brideshead, and lots of good costuming and set dressing, but Jarrold is too fond of backlighting (even if backlighting might work metaphorically in a story about the preeminence of the past — had that preeminence been properly developed, here). The half-shadowed faces and black backgrounds look like the products of a malfunctioning light-meter, or of a rookie with a limitless budget and no self-control. I’m a fan of dark films — and darkly lit films — but, once again, Jarrold has managed to irritate me in a way I can’t pinpoint for readers. What works in the hands of other filmmakers just grates here, for some reason. There are generally two kinds of production design for period films: the traditional bright, gauzy look and the more recent look with strong delimitations and lots of murky corners. Good movies emerge from both traditions, but as dedicated as Brideshead is to the latter, it displays an absence of know-how. Jarrold also needs an attention span; the camera is almost always moving in dollies or pans — more restless than demonstrative — and the editing compounds this restlessness (an odd choice for the material since, in Jarrold’s version, the speeding up of the modern world isn’t really visible here). Jarrold’s camera doesn’t know what to do with itself and constantly has to fiddle, the way an amateur actor fiddles his hands at his hips. He tries to evoke swells of emotion with his sweeps, but he only evokes melodrama. He tries to conceal his lack of confidence with techniques rather than use those techniques to enhance his story and showcase his abilities. He even trots out the costume drama clichés to make sure we know he’s made us a costume drama — like the slow-motion pulling off of dust-covers from furniture, or the heaving vintage-clothes sex scene.
What’s left is the story and the performances. The story, in its original form, is about the decay of tradition, but we’re treated to The Notebook version with this go-around. If that’s up your alley, you may find Brideshead engaging. The performances are workaday and without surprises, but for one exception: Wishaw, who looks like an emaciated Lothaire Bluteau, makes for a downright lugubrious Sebastian. Goode’s Ryder is not only a blank slate of a character (which could work for the narrative in principle); as an actor, Goode spends the movie blinking at objects like a stunned ram. He’s not particularly flexible onscreen, and Sebastian and Lady Marchmain aren’t particularly charismatic; we aren’t convinced that either of them could suck Charles into their world or religion. I hesitate to mention the role of Catholicism in the film, or class snobbery, or the mistrust of progress, or even sexuality, because to bring those up will lead me inevitably back to Waugh and his novel. But they’re essential to the story and to character motive, and they make appearances here in inconsistent arcs. In Jarrold’s sweaty grasp, they get punted around and a little bruised — some thematic elements are stifled under barely perceptible cues when they need to be broadcast, while others are neon-bright when they ought to be more furtive. If you don’t mind a confused, stink-handed approach to seminal literature, or a pungent love-story in sweater-vests, Brideshead will serve its purpose. There are plenty of doe-eyed lovers staring hungrily across rooms at each other, plenty of (dark-edged) architectural panoramas, and just enough soulless competence to pull the film together as a series of images that evoke a certain era. That’s about as much as I can accord this one. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on August 4, 2008.)