On Jeremy Irons's Cheekbones

By Skinner, David | Humanities, September/October 2008 | Go to article overview

On Jeremy Irons's Cheekbones


Skinner, David, Humanities


The arts and the humanities seem to have much in common. Like the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, two cultural agencies of the federal government located in the same building in Washington, the arts and the humanities are taken to be neighbors: as dose as literature to literary criticism or history to historical drama. They have serious differences, of course, and they are perceived differently. Bruce Eraser, head of the Connecticut Humanities Council, is quoted in this issue describing their respective reputations as vivacious, for the arts, and quietly dutiful, for the humanities. (Actually, he puts the matter much more eloquently in the article on page 40.)

I thought of these differences as I took in the summer film Brideshead Revisited, which Evelyn Waugh fans know is an especially lean representation of the original novel. Pity the filmmakers who had to labor in the long shadow of Granada Television's wildly popular thirteen-hour, small-screen version starring Jeremy Irons-its ultra faithful script practically a photocopy of the novel. And yet the new movie is a beautiful thing, especially gorgeous in its visual evocations of the Edwardian era and the fading glory of nineteenth-century English architecture and culture. Also, the movie is certainly vivacious; its first twenty minutes frenetic even.

The novel is the opposite of frenetic. It begins with Charles Ryder going through the motions of army life, comparing himself to a husband "who, in the fourth year of marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, or tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife." The wife in his case was the army, which had exposed the sensitive Ryder, an artist in civilian life, to the hideous drone of modernity, transistor radios playing incessantly, cheap architecture, uncultured know-it-alls like the young officer Hooper, who says about Hitler: "I reckon we could learn a thing or two from him."

In Ryder's mind, Hooper stands in for what the newspapers call Young England. …

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