Good Film, Bad Waugh

By Sailer, Steve | The American Conservative, August 25, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Good Film, Bad Waugh

Sailer, Steve, The American Conservative

NO AMERICAN did more to resuscitate Evelyn Waugh's reputation than the late William F. Buckley. By Waugh's death in 1966, the reactionary Catholic novelist's standing had fallen almost as low as Jay McInerney's has today, yet Buckley's devotion introduced Waugh to a new generation. For Waugh's 1982 apotheosis, the monumental 13-episode "Brideshead Revisited" miniseries, Buckley was rightly hired to host the show on PBS.

The news that the recent movie adaptation of Brideshead, Waugh's magentahued 1945 saga about a decadent Catholic noble family, would star the English actor Matthew Goode was intriguing. Goode, who played an amusing aristocrat in Woody Allen's "Match Point," resembles a young Buckley, especially in his express-elevator eyebrows. His patrician magnetism made him a natural to play Sebastian Flyte, the charming toff who beguiles Charles Ryder, an ambitious bourgeois aesthete, when they meet at Oxford in 1923.

After Sebastian drinks himself into a monastery, Ryder's ingenuous "romantic friendship" with Sebastian is followed by a mature love affair with Sebastian's sister Julia. She's unhappily married to the crass politician Rex Mottram, whom Waugh modeled on Winston Churchill's right-hand man, Brendan Bracken. Rex is willing to give her a divorce, but Julia's vestigial Catholicism raises qualms in her about remarriage.

Unfortunately, the new "Brideshead Revisited" casts Goode as Charles, the reticent interloper dazed by the refinement of the Flyte family and their stately home Brideshead--played once again by the stupendous Castle Howard in North Yorkshire--leaving Goode few occasions to deploy his Buckleyesque facial gymnastics.

Despite that missed opportunity, this "Brideshead Revisited" is a perfectly competent film for grown-ups, superior to last year's similar exercise in English upper-crust period porn, the Best Picture nominee "Atonement."

"Atonement" invited us to indulge in modern metasnobbery, to tut-tut publicly about the horrors of the English class system while privately wallowing in the visual splendor it created. In contrast, Waugh was an old-fashioned snob, whose only objection to class was that he wasn't born into the very highest one.

While the 2008 "Brideshead Revisited" is certainly tasteful and efficient, those are just about the last words you'd associate with Waugh's grand but sprawling bestseller, half-masterpiece, half-embarrassment.

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