Film Forum: Brideshead Revisited

Congratulations to my good friend Alissa Wilkinson, who makes her debut as a Christianity Today Movies film critic today with a 3 1/2 – star review for Brideshead Revisited:

The diversity of these characters’ attitudes toward Catholicism is striking for its range, from the well-motivated but grim Lady Marchmain, who embraces truth and duty without any accompanying grace and love, to Lord Marchmain, who rejects religion during his lifetime but is not beyond God’s grace. Bridey is practical and traditional; Cordelia is cheerfully devoted; and Julia and Sebastian both recognize their sinful ways, but remain convinced of the truth of the church’s teachings on sin.

Portraying these types of complex characters always presents a challenge, but with this cast, one could hardly go wrong. Thompson is regal, imbuing the potentially one-dimensional Lady Marchmain with just the right mixture of emotion and frigidity; Gambon makes a perfect lovable rogue of Lord Marchmain. Goode and Atwell share excellent chemistry.

But it is Whishaw whose performance lights up the screen. Last seen as a narrative Bob Dylan in I’m Not There and a deeply disturbing murderer in Perfume, he disappears completely into Sebastian in all his playfulness, confusion, depression, and final peace. Whishaw is still a relatively new onscreen face, but a role like this augurs well for his staying power as a complex, accomplished actor.

Considering the widespread appeal of last year’s acclaimed Atonement, it’s surprising that Miramax hasn’t chosen to push Brideshead Revisited toward a wider audience. The two films merit comparison. Both are epics that begin in post-World War I England, both are visually sumptuous and emotionally affecting, and both deal with themes of guilt, grace, and redemption.

But Brideshead is arguably the better movie.

It’s interesting that *this* is the report at CT on the film, after several worrying articles have appeared about the film in Christian media outlets. Here’s one that appeared at InsideCatholic.com:

Based on the comments of its director, Julian Jarrold, and screenwriter, Jeremy Brock, the new version presents Catholicism not as the solution to the novel’s central dilemma — an adulterous love affair — but as a problem to be overcome.

And from Victor J. Morton (RightWing Film Geek):

I fearlessly predict… that the new BRIDESHEAD REVISITED movie will suck pretty hard. We can already be morally certain that it will be a vulgar reduction of Sebastian in ways designed to pander to contemporary narrowness and sex obsession.

Or this from Gina Dalfonzo at The Point:

I make no claims to being able to provide any sort of definitive interpretation of Brideshead. But one would hope that anyone trying to adapt it into a film would at least have some sort of rudimentary grasp of the material and its deepest themes. Alas, by Brock’s own account, he seems to have got it exactly backwards…

But what about checking in with another person who has actually seen the film? Here’s Andrew Sarris:

I believe that Mr. Jarrold and his scenarists have been unusually faithful to the bleak vision of humanity Waugh presents in Brideshead Revisited, and in all his works. It is a first for me, and I hope a last. Consequently, I recommend the brilliant pessimism of this film to all my readers, who I hope will appreciate the exquisitely rendered truthfulness of the narrative. As for the unredeemably pleasure-seeking hedonists among you, don’t say I didn’t warn you. On the other hand, nothing is more depressing in these dire times than a steady diet of mindlessly escapist flicks.

Ebert, on the other hand, says:

While elegantly mounted and well acted, the movie is not the equal of the TV production, in part because so much material had to be compressed into such a shorter time. It is also not the equal of the recent film “Atonement,” which in an oblique way touches on similar issues. But it is a good, sound example of the British period drama; mid-range Merchant-Ivory, you could say.

And now this:

Matt Prigge in the Philadelphia Weekly

Waugh, a Catholic convert, intended Brideshead to express his deep faith during a time of newly chic godlessness. This Brideshead Revisited doesn’t want to convert atheists into believers. [The filmmakers] even end their film one step sooner than the novel, which has Charles climactically kneeling down in a chapel, fully flip-flopped. Any adaptation ought to be its own thing, but the film’s hesitation to follow its source to the end produces a confused, schizophrenic work.

Here’s the trailer.

UPDATE:

Steven Greydanus – Decent Films:

Brideshead Revisited, directed by Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) from a screenplay by Jeremy Brock (The Last King of Scotland) and Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones’s Diary), gets a few things right. The allure of the opulent elegance of Brideshead (York’s Castle Howard, as in the miniseries) for middle-class artist Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode, Match Point), and in particular the enigmatic appeal of Julia Flyte (Hayley Atwell), for instance. The dry humor of Charles’s strained relationship with his eccentric father, for another.

Even the portrayal of the Flytes’ dysfunctional Catholicism isn’t without merit. Sebastian’s line “I’m not a heathen, I’m a sinner,” is not from the book (“half-heathens” is how Waugh’s Sebastian describes himself and his sister Julia), but I think Waugh might have approved.

Yet this Brideshead Revisited ultimately subverts Waugh’s subtlest and most subversive achievement: It offers all the foibles and puzzlement of the Flytes’ religious world, while all but obliterating the threads of grace running through their lives.

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  • http://vjmorton.wordpress.com vjmorton

    I went to see the film Friday and had a very different reaction from what I expected. Maybe it helps to expect the film to “suck really hard,” so then you can be pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t. Scots are all Calvinists, even the Kaffliks.

  • http://www.besidethequeue.wordpress.com besidethequeue

    Here is another interesting review by A.O Scott:

    http://movies.nytimes.com/2008/07/25/movies/25brid.html?ref=movies

    This movie worries me. This is one of my favorite novels, and what makes it most powerful is two or three scenes that center around the character’s faith. If they leave out these scenes the fill will go from being a liberal interpretation to something altogether other.


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