Magazine article The Christian Century

Brideshead Revisited

Magazine article The Christian Century

Brideshead Revisited

Article excerpt

Brideshead Revisited.

Directed by Julian Jarrold.

Starring Ben Whishaw, Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell and Emma Thompson.

Evelyn Waugh's marvelous novel Brideshead Revisited begins as a coming-of-age story. At Oxford in the 1920s Charles Ryder crosses paths with the disarming, childlike aristocrat Sebastian Flyte; they become inseparable friends, and Charles is taken up by Sebastian's family. He becomes a frequent visitor to Brideshead, the gracious old estate ruled by Sebastian's devout Catholic mother, Lady Marchmain, and is invited to Venice as a guest of Sebastian's father, the renegade Lord Marchmain, who resides there with his longtime Italian mistress.

This section of the book--Charles's sentimental education, in which he fails in love with the Flytes and then loses them when Sebastian's drinking binges turn into alcoholism--constitutes only the first half. The second half picks up, years later, after Charles has begun to establish himself as a painter and his marriage has soured. He reconnects with Sebastian's sister Julia--now married to a boorish American--and they fall in love.

The book is a double tragedy: Charles loses his youth when his friendship with Sebastian disintegrates, and then he loses Julia, whose attachment to Catholicism prevents her from divorcing her husband to marry Charles. As Julia puts it, the words she learned in the nursery return to claim her. Waugh links the two halves of the story: Charles calls his affection for Sebastian the forerunner of his love for Julia.

But Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, the writers of the unfortunate new film version of Brideshead Revisited, invent other ways to connect these two parts of the tale--ways that distort Waugh's story. They make Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) explicitly homosexual (in the book, his attachments are platonic) and in love with Charles. They advance the first stirrings of romance between Charles (Matthew Goode) and Julia (Hayley Atwell) to Venice; Sebastian glimpses their first kiss, in the shadows of the canal, so it's also the Judas kiss of betrayal. And they add an element of social ambition for Charles that is meant to motivate his attraction to both Sebastian and Julia.

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These new emphases certainly distinguish the movie from the beloved 1981 British miniseries, but rethinking these relationships this way banalizes the story, as does the reduction of Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), a complex character in the novel, to an iron-willed tyrant who infantilizes Sebastian and uses her Catholicism as a whip to subdue all four of her children. …

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