Brideshead Revisited
Well Worth the Cinematic Treatment

I really love period piecesand especially British period pieces. If done well, these films bring a great deal of understanding as to the workings of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant mind and to the tension created when different traditions, doctrines, and theologies butt up against that system.

Brideshead Revisited is a powerful primer on English social, religious, educational, and relational customs of the period between the world wars. The film is full of rich themes which are explored within the lives and contexts of the main characters, with a glimpse of profound observation occasionally contributed by a supporting character. Among the themes of Brideshead Revisited are:  the capriciousness of love, which falls upon whom it will and in varying forms; adultery; homosexuality; Catholicism; atheism; relationships between parents and children; alcoholism; class and place in society; guilt; sin; and redemption of a strange sort. I can see no reason that anyone should walk away from this movie without something to think about or discuss.

Ben Whishaw as Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead RevisitedCharles Ryder (absolutely aced by Matthew Goode) is a young man of modest means and no particular place in society except among the masses. During WWII, he finds himself billeted at the expansive castle and estate named Brideshead, where he spent a great deal of time during his Oxford years as the friend of heir and black sheep of the Flyte family, Sebastian. Coming from the home of his acerbic and quite sardonic father (played beautifully by Patrick Malahide), Charles is starved for love and a sense of belonging that Sebastian is very happy to accommodate, considering that he is smitten with the gorgeous Charles and longs to make him his lover and companion.

Tension arises when it becomes clear that, although Charles loves Sebastian as a friend, he is completely taken by Sebastian’s sister, Julia. The rock in the middle of the road, however, is not Sebastian, but mummy, Lady Marchmain—a staunch and devout Catholic who serves her religion (and controls her family) with guilt and the high estate of class awareness. Charles is an openly-proclaimed atheist, which immediately puts him on the complete outs with Lady Marchmain, who tolerates him in the safe fashion that she tolerates her homosexual and alcoholic son.

Julian Jarrold directs Brideshead Revisited and presents a masterpiece in character study. His use of long shots to highlight body language and the positioning of characters tells much more than the dialogue ever couldand his closeups (especially of the eyes and hands of his characters) tell another myriad of stories within the story. Jarrold cut his teeth on Becoming Jane, which was also very well done and a great precursor to the intricacy of Brideshead Revisited. The only snag in Jarrold’s direction is that he has other characters that are constantly upstaging his actors… and those are Castle Howard and its grounds, the Yorkshire countryside, and Venice, Italy. The beauty of the scenery and the awesome massive presence of Castle Howard literally take one’s breath away and distract at times from the flow of story and dialogue.

The strongest tension of the movie is, oddly enough, not the romance but the overarching presence of Catholicism. Lady Marchmain’s philosophy of life is, “God commands, we obey.”  But Charles hits the nail on the head when he rewords her philosophy to what it truly is, “You demand, and God obeys.”  Every character in the Marchmain-Flyte family is riddled with guiltexcept Lady Marchmain, who feels that she has become as some have dubbed her, “a living saint.”  The rest of her family has adopted the view that they are sinners who can’t help it and go to confession when the load of guilt gets too burdensome so that they can start over again. While Charles Ryder pities the Flyte family for their bondage to the Catholic religion, he fails to see that he is as much in bondage as they are.

His bondage, however, is his birth into non-titled and non-moneyed society, which he sees as forever holding him back from his true potential in life. Even though he can make money as a painter, he will never have the golden spoon or the power money brings the Flytes. He can never rest on his laurels and just be “taken care of” and drink and party life away while living in the lap of luxuryand that is what he wants more than anything else. So Charles realizes that his guilt is as deep as that of the Flytes, but not over sin. He is a user of people, and that makes him very like an atheist version of Lady Marchmain.

Why revisit something that has been written and done as a mini-series on BBC?  Well, for one thing, the big screen brings a grandeur to the story that the small screen cannot. The excesses of the characters are amplified by the excesses of the settings, costuming, and decadence of the time periodwhich all require a larger budget than television productions can usually boast. There are also several award-worthy characterizations here that are wonderful studies to see—namely Emma Thompson as Marchmain, Ben Whishaw, and Matthew Goode. This is a film into which you can lose yourself; and where better than in a dark theater with a big, wide screen and popcorn?

Brideshead Revisited is rated PG-13 for “some sexual content.” There are some bun shots when the boys are swimming naked in the fountain, but no overt nudity even in the bedroom scenes. There is one chaste kiss between Charles and Sebastian. Although the rating is mild enough for teens, the movie is very adult in content and themes. It will probably bore the pants off of anyone under twenty-one unless they are literature majors. Enjoy this for the adult fare that it is, and leave the children at home.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Kathy attended a press screening of Brideshead Revisited.