A finely wrought, Merchant-Ivory-style Brit-lit adaptation rather curiously unloaded by Miramax smack amid Stateside summer tentpole season — just before fall fest season and the unveiling of awards contenders — “Brideshead Revisited” offers lush and compelling drama drawn from Evelyn Waugh’s beloved novel. Purists may blanch at the screenplay’s changes to the source material’s narrative fine points, but its spirit survives intact. Fond memories of the 1981 miniseries likely will only help prod curious fans into theaters, suggesting respectable B.O. on both sides of the Atlantic.
Scenarists Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock (like director Julian Jarrold, all veteran adapters of literary and historical tales for film and TV) have created a few bold shortcuts that will invariably distress folks who justifiably view the Granada TV mini as one of the truest page-to-screen transfers ever. But then, it had 11 hours in which to reproduce every nuance. And this version’s changes, in the end, serve to communicate the novel’s complexities within a viable, theatrical-friendly format without ever appearing to rush or coarsen its general arc. (Still, one wouldn’t guess this from the film’s trailer, which strains to make it look like a pulse-pounding intrigue in period duds, a la “Vanity Fair” or “The Scarlet Letter.”)
Allowing auds sufficient retro-aristo-lifestyle sumptuousness for their dollar, yet exhibiting admirable, intelligent directorial restraint, this “Brideshead” is mainstream arthouse fare par excellence. Tale is framed, as in the novel, by the stationing of Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) as a WWII British Army officer in a lavish country estate-turned-temporary military base — a location he’s visited before under very different circumstances.
Bulk of the narrative is set earlier, in the 1920s, as middle-class Charles commences studies at Oxford and falls into the company of fellow student Lord Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw), whose impulsive hedonism and affectionate nature charm him. When Sebastian shows Charles the extraordinary ancestral grounds he grew up in, the latter is further seduced by such sheer magnificence.
But as Sebastian is too well mannered to say outright, Brideshead Castle is, for him, a prison of instilled guilt, to be escaped by any means possible — which, in his case, turns out to be alcohol. With Sebastian’s coolly alluring sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) also in residence, the fun comes to a sharp end with the dreaded arrival of their mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) — a devout, most bitterly husband-abandoned Catholic.
In the hope that the visitor’s solidity might steady her son, Lady Marchmain encourages him to accompany the sibs on a trip to visit their father, Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), and his mistress, Cara (Greta Scacchi), in Venice. This is another idyllic time, though the growing attraction between Charles and Julia deals Sebastian a crushing blow that sends him sliding further into alcoholism.
As the years move onward, Sebastian, Charles and Julia drift far from one another, yet remain bound by conflicted secular yearnings and sacred guilt.
While the film offers the closest thing to a gay love story in mainstream cinema since “Brokeback Mountain,” it wouldn’t be quite right to call the Charles-Sebastian dynamic homoerotic: True to the novel, what Cara terms a “romantic friendship” is tangible more as true love than as mere sexual attraction, no matter that Sebastian suffers the stigma of feeling both.
Unfolding at a pace that never feels rushed despite the compacted runtime, pic clearly portrays the Flyte offspring as forever crippled by the sense of sin imbued in them by their mother. Yet what plays for some time as a fairly harsh condemnation of oppressive religious morality finally becomes a poignant acknowledgement of faith, encapsulating Charles’ new attitude toward it in a beautifully low-key close.
Goode provides a fine center of gravity as the middle-class tourist in heady but toxic upper-class realms. Thompson superbly etches a complex, eventually tragic portrait in her relatively few scenes.
Whishaw and Atwell are fine, but leave perhaps a slightly less distinctive stamp on their roles than the series’ Anthony Andrews and Diana Quick, respectively.
Without tipping into excess eye candy, the design contribs are all one could wish for, handsomely captured in Jess Hall’s widescreen lensing. Adrian Johnson’s graceful score is another notable plus in a package that, in every department, approaches the material with understated respect rather than stylistic flash.
Reportedly, Paul Bettany, Jude Law and Jennifer Connelly were attached until helmer David Yates was poached for last year’s “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” One can say, in this case, that settling for the B team turned out well.