Saturday, August 9, 2008
Easy On the Eyes: Brideshead Revisited
“If it could only be like this always,” laments Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited, “always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe.” Indeed, if only. If only life provided nothing but immaculate afternoons on the stately grounds of an English countryside castle, passion-filled moonlit nights in Venice and heartfelt conversations in tranquil gardens in Morocco. If it did, it would resemble Julian Jerrod’s rendition of Brideshead Revisited, a visually lavish film that offers more to look at than to look into. It’s a nice place to visit for a few hours, full of pristine postcard images from Jess Hall, but it’s not a movie that aches to be remembered.
It’s based, of course, on Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, and the material is known to many thanks to a 1981 miniseries that helped to launch the movie career of Jeremy Irons. But Jerrod’s film marked my introduction to a story that couldn’t help but feel familiar just the same – an England-between-the-wars period piece in which class and religion are foremost concerns, in which the weather always matches the mood and in which the characters wear elegant garments that appear to be wrinkle-proof. The film’s predictability is both a blessing and a curse, on the one hand making the flaws of unconvincingly executed plot twists almost unnoticeable, while on the other preventing the movie from etching a unique identity.
Brideshead Revisited is told from the perspective of Charles Ryder, a man of middle class upbringing who through odd circumstances finds himself swept up into the well-to-do but decidedly unwell lives of the Marchmain/Flyte family. Charles is played by Matthew Goode, who resembles Aidan Quinn circa Legends Of The Fall and whose performance strangely reminds of a cross between Jeff Bridges in Starman and Haley Joel Osment in A.I., albeit with a soothing English accent. By design, Charles is supposed to be an alien in the upper crusty circles of the Marchmain/Flytes, but this couldn’t be what Waugh had in mind. Goode’s Charles seems from another world entirely. He’s robotic. Beyond his character’s voiceover confessions, Goode gives us only the tiniest peephole into Charles’ psyche. And though an early voiceover suggests that Charles’ personality is an amalgam of Marchmain/Flyte imitation, the character hardly exhibits any personality at all. If Brideshead Revisited is meant to reveal a man assuming a new identity, ala The Talented Mr. Ripley, it fails in every respect.
The good news is that the performances around Goode make up for his blandness. Ben Whishaw’s Sebastian is convincingly needy and lonely, his reliance on extreme self pity serving to illustrate the debilitating effects of an escalating alcohol addiction just as tragically as it acts as a tool to further his abuse. Sebastian’s mostly one-sided affection for Charles is as vulnerable as it is heartfelt, and it’s within this doomed love story that Goode’s blankness actually works to the film’s advantage. When it comes to Charles’ romance with Sebastian’s sister Julia, however, only the inevitability of their affair makes it convincing. Hayley Atwell infuses Julia with as much soul as the screenplay allows. Mostly, though, Julia is a figure of the plot rather than a fleshed out character. Her perfunctory we-shouldn’t-do-this first kiss with Charles would be entirely passionless if not for the romantic reflection of the moonlight off a Venice waterway. If you had any difficulty buying into Atonement’s undying love affair, based on just one night of unleashed passion, you’ll find nothing to hold on to here.
Entirely convincing, though, is Emma Thompson’s performance as Lady Marchmain, the devoutly religious mother of Sebastian and Julia who is quick to identify the impurities of her children. All by itself, Thompson’s stardom provides the necessary weight that the matriarchic character requires, and per usual the actress avoids theatrical excessiveness. Thompson’s performance, though not the best in the film, is so perfect in pitch that it could be easily overlooked. Yet to imagine Meryl Streep, Glenn Close or Judi Dench in the part is to realize all the ways it might otherwise have been overdone. Without a single tantrum or Oscar-baiting scene, Thompson’s Lady Marchmain casts an intimidating, judgmental shadow across the film. The only pity is that Lady Marchmain’s steadfast Catholicism feels like the key to only her own existence until the end of the film when religion suddenly has a stranglehold on the entire story.
But did I mention that Brideshead Revisited is lovely to look at? Considering the medium, that’s worth quite a bit. Save two substandard (and entirely unnecessary) CGI shots of a Titanic-esque ocean liner churning through rough seas, each shot has grandeur. Does the film remain faithful to Waugh’s novel? It couldn’t. Does it live up to the PBS miniseries? I’d bet not. But Jerrod’s adaptation does provide an escape to a more decadent era. The film’s disjointed storytelling fails to deeply offend because the dramatic execution of the plot is almost irrelevant. In Brideshead Revisited love blooms, religion and class struggles loom and eventually things fall apart. Just as we expect. But at least we get to enjoy summer.