Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, first published in 1945, soon became a novel beloved both by the British, who hailed it as one of their own masterpieces, and by Catholics, who venerated it as moving portrayal of the unique burdens of their faith. So when news came last year of an upcoming film adaptation that would largely do away with all that religious bosh and focus almost exclusively on a salacious love triangle, both these camps got ready to go into high dudgeon.
Both camps’ complaints were remarkably similar. The definitive screen treatment of Brideshead, scoffed the doubters, had already been achieved in the lovingly detailed, 11-episode BBC miniseries released to wide acclaim in 1981. Who could improve on perfection? And to give the unlikely task of besting this masterpiece to a relatively unknown and inexperienced director-screenwriter team, whom the studio had hastily signed on after their initial plan fell through? Well, all this was simply too much to bear for Waugh’s champions.
Contrary to the Waugh purists, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with an odd pairing of neophyte filmmakers to hallowed masterpieces. And the team chosen for the new Brideshead—Director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) and screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies (Bridget Jones’ Diary)—made a bold and refreshing decision not to genuflect before either camp’s altars. They wished instead to shake off the dust of Brideshead’s “Great Work” status and present it anew to contemporary moviegoers.
Perhaps they were on to something. Indeed, the story, which follows Charles Ryder’s involvement with the aristocratic Flyte family, helmed by the pious Catholic Lady Marchmain (and the excommunicated Lord Marchmain), has a history of dueling interpretations. Does it uphold or subvert Catholic moral claims? Does it present the tragic beauty of an ossifying aristocracy, or a satirical indictment of same? Is it more fundamentally a romantic love story, or an austere portrayal of the struggle against sin and search for redemption? Perhaps some new answers to these questions might let this musty old classic breathe once again.
Then again, perhaps not. In order to pare down the sprawling plot to feature length, Jarrold’s take on the story is that of a soapy love triangle between Charles and the two “half heathen” Flyte siblings, Sebastian and Julia. This is the version feared by Waugh himself, who had rebuffed several attempts by Hollywood directors in his own day to adapt the novel as a “forbidden romance” melodrama. (Waugh later repaid Hollywood for its efforts in his deliciously satirical novel, The Loved One.) In Jarrold’s version, fun-house mirror notions of modern ideas like “liberation” and “self-discovery” obscure Waugh’s delicate and deliberate ambiguities. As the director described it in a Telegraph article rather defiantly titled “What I’ve Done to Brideshead”, his film encourages resistance to “religious fundamentalism and sexual intolerance”:
Contrary to some reports, God is not the villain of our adaptation. The villain is man-made theology; the emotional and moral contortions forced on to individuals by their adherence to a particular set of codes and practices.
Thus Julia and Charles, who form a staid, world-weary pair as adults in the novel, feel in the screen version an intense, immediate attraction for each other, crowding out the profound friendship with Sebastian that is the emotional core of the original. In the novel, none of Julia’s family approve of her disastrous marriage to the buffoon Rex Mottram. In Jarrold’s version, ultra-Catholic Lady Marchmain inexplicably and vehemently approves of a match between her daughter and the non-Catholic Rex. And the other “star” of the novel, the Catholic Church itself, is stripped of its finery and made to appear as an archaic, ridiculous bureaucracy that drives its poor adherents to wrack and ruin.
Jarrold responded to early criticism that the perfection of the BBC miniseries would doom any remake to irrelevance by saying that literature of Brideshead’s stature deserves a full-fledged treatment on the silver screen. Yet for all the lavish sets and costumes, the film seems drab in comparison to the miniseries, however dated that version may appear to younger audiences today. The miniseries allowed the characters dignity, reserve and emotional restraint; they became more complex as tensions simmered beneath their surface interactions. The tragedies that later fell upon them were no less devastating for the quiet fortitude with which they were borne.
The film, by contrast, drowns the signature reserve of Waugh’s characters in hammy melodramatic lines: “You were the one who walked away,” Julia huffs to her father. “I hate you all so very much. . . . You only wanted to sleep with my sister!” Sebastian shrieks to Charles. “You’re the reason he drinks,” says Charles to Lady Marchmain, to which she fires back, “You just wanted him to like you; you’re so desperate to be liked.” And in the utterly ham-fisted deathbed scene, Lord Marchmain bares himself to Charles, saying, “I watched that woman crucify my son. I let him down. I let everyone down.”
This unabashed emotional language, this open airing of feelings, would have been foreign to these characters in their time and place (pre-war Britain). It’s also completely foreign to Waugh’s own style, which was marked by its capacity to convey interior emotional states through subtle cues in dialogue and action, rather than the telenovela-style outbursts on which Jarrold relies.
Jarrold and company similarly abandon nuance in their portrayal of homosexual themes in the novel. Ben Wishaw’s Sebastian is markedly effeminate and slight, with none of the easy confidence and grace of bearing that Anthony Edwards so memorably brought to the BBC version. In one particularly jarring moment in the film, Sebastian cries in an undershirt while his mother lectures over him, brining to mind Hitchcock’s Norman Bates more than a man Charles could ever love.
The film’s addition of two scenes, one in which Sebastian kisses Charles and another in which he angrily witnesses Charles kissing Julia, make it explicit that Sebastian desires a physical relationship with his friend. Charles’s early rejection of this relationship is the spark that sets off Sebastian’s alcoholism and permanently ruptures their friendship. Jarrold said of the changes:
Waugh had a very skillful way of skating over the sordid details. . . . This ambivalence was probably the result of his own sexual ambivalence.
But Jarrold’s insistence on taking the novel’s implicit ambiguities and rendering them palpable for a lazy moviegoing audience ends up reducing the story yet again. Making Sebastian overtly gay diminishes him as a character, defining him by his sexuality alone. On the page, Sebastian is charming, maddening, ethereally beautiful, and terrified of adulthood; here, he’s just another cliché—a closeted homosexual suffocated by his mother. As a result, the love between Charles and Sebastian that is the heart of Waugh’s novel—where Sebastian remains the “forerunner” throughout Charles’s life—never shows up on screen. Sebastian merely serves to open the gilded gates to Brideshead for Charles, and then goes off on his merry, alcoholic way.
And at last we come to the most puzzling of Jarrold’s revisions: the changes to Charles. From the film’s opening voice-over, in which the aged Charles says that he no longer knows who he is, he seems like a Tom Ripley-ish interloper, infatuated more with the Brideshead estate than with either of its youthful inhabitants. Early on, Jarrold seeds the theme of Charles’s supposedly shameful middle class upbringing: the teasing of Oxford schoolmates about his primary schooling; Nanny Hawkins’s disappointment when, upon asking after his family, she is told that Charles is “no one important”; and the raised eyebrows when he appears at dinner in a flannel suit beside the tuxedoed Flyte men. Jeremy Irons’s Charles exudes quiet awe and barely restrained joy when first taking in the beauty of the estate; Matthew Goode’s eyes gleam with greed. As with Sebastian, the effect is to reduce a complex character to a single thing: thwarted ambition.
Jarrold may have thought himself to be improving upon Waugh’s novel by brushing aside what he called the “rather dull, fuddy duddy stuff, the nostalgia”, instead emphasizing the themes of individualism, sexual expression, and class consciousness that he thought would resonate with contemporary viewers. But for all the film’s arresting imagery, it strips bare the rich tapestry of the original.
Why did they do this? Perhaps because the original presented a world the filmmakers never sought to understand on its own terms. If so, then they failed the greatest—some may even say only—test of true art.
In the film’s final clunker, Charles’s military subordinate Hooper proclaims, “The old ways are gone.” If nothing else, Jarrold’s misbegotten Brideshead makes that abundantly clear.
-Noelle Daly is Assistant Editor of The American Interest.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire