"Brideshead Revisited:" Movie doesn't match the series, but then, how could it?
Julian Jarrold's new screen adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel "Brideshead Revisited" is tasty — if not quite as delicious as the longer, 1981 public TV series.
Seattle Times movie critic
"Brideshead Revisited," with Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw, Hayley Atwell, Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon. Directed by Julian Jarrold, from a screenplay by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh. 120 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content. Harvard Exit, Lincoln Square.
To review Julian Jarrold's film of "Brideshead Revisited," one must first consider the elegant elephant in the room. Although Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel has never before been transformed into a theatrical film, it was made into a lavish, 11-hour television series in 1981. Shown on PBS to much acclaim, it featured a young Jeremy Irons as the troubled, infatuated Charles Ryder, drawn into the wealthy (and very Catholic) Marchmain family in the years before World War II. Leisurely and hypnotic, the series has long been a favorite with those who love literary adaptations.
Jarrold ("Becoming Jane") jumps into the fray fearlessly, even shooting his film in the same stately home (the sprawling Castle Howard, in Yorkshire) as the 1981 series did. This gives the new film a strange déjà-vu quality: The rooms and grounds look familiar, but the faces are different. It's a smart decision and feels like an homage to the previous film, with Castle Howard playing its role beautifully. The dust covers thrown off the statuary seem to float like angels; a late-night outdoor scene by an imposing fountain, with Lady Julia's red dress glowing like a torch, seems to take place in some period-movie heaven.
But enough of all this waltzing around the question I can hear you all shouting, albeit politely: Is the movie as good as the series? Well, no, but how could it be? Eleven hours is a languorous luxury, to be filled with subtlety and the slow growth of characters through myriad tiny details; in two hours, things must by necessity be sped-up and condensed. Written by the fine British screenwriters Andrew Davies (whose long career in literary adaptation most recently includes the BBC's "Bleak House" and "Sense and Sensibility") and Jeremy Brock ("Mrs. Brown," "The Last King of Scotland"), this "Brides-
head" is, in a nutshell, less Sebastian and more Julia.
That Charles (Matthew Goode) has feelings he cannot name for troubled, sodden Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) is clear in the movie's languid first act, but Sebastian's sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) quickly becomes the object of Charles' affections. Though the novel makes clear that Charles has an electric attraction for Julia ("I caught a thin bat's squeak of sexuality, inaudible to anyone but me") from the first moment he meets her, this is still a fairly drastic change. The screenwriters, to move the story along, have also inserted Julia into some scenes, including a trip to Venice, in which she's not present in the novel.
Though purists may raise eyebrows, Jarrold's film is well worth seeing for those who, like me, are putty in the hands of films in which people demonstrate mental instability by wearing tweeds to a ball. Though nobody here will make you forget Irons, the young cast is attractive and magnetic (particularly Atwell's often acidic Julia), and Emma Thompson's crisp, cool Lady Marchmain steals the movie with her cut-glass diction. "Brideshead Revisited," it turns out, deserves a revisit.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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