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Brideshead Revisited

I am completely unqualified to write this review.

I have not read Evelyn Waugh’s novel on which this movie is based. Nor have I seen the famous and acclaimed 1982 miniseries based on that novel. In fact, I’ve never read a thing by Evelyn Waugh, despite my English degree from a semi-prestigious liberal arts college, and I’m not a big fan of miniseries, especially BBC miniseries. I don’t even know much about 1982 – I was five years old. So.

Normally, this kind of lack of qualification wouldn’t slow me a down a bit. I’d turn ignorance into strength: I come to the movie clean and fresh, with no expectations based on the book or the miniseries. There would be no whining about how the movie doesn’t measure up to the book (really, what movie ever does?) And no complaining about which actor was the better whatshisname. But that’s where “Brideshead Revisited,” the movie, is different. This is a movie based on a miniseries based on a novel. The entire way the movie played out felt like a series of Cliffnotes. I might be able to pass a high school level quiz on the material, but when it comes to its deeper points, or its beauty, its style and its importance, I’m lost. The movie is a series of adaptations, abbreviations, references, and footnotes. Like the little yellow paperbacks, it’s an attempt to cram an awful lot of material into a much smaller space than ever before, with the intent of reaching an audience who may not sit through a 17 hour miniseries, much less a 1000 page book. The summer has been full of movie versions of comic books; “Brideshead Revisited” is the comic book version of a (really long) movie.

Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is a student at Oxford from a working-class family. He bumps into the aristocratic Sebastien Flyte, who latches on to him immediately. Sebastien is gay, sensitive, and flamboyant; Charles is steady and soft-spoken. Sebastien takes Charles to Brideshead, his palatial home, and we’re supposed to understand that Charles falls in love with the aristocratic lifestyle, and will do almost anything to stay in that circle, a la Matt Damon’s Mr. Ripley. This never really comes across, because Goode plays the character so flatly.

Sebastien falls in love with (an incredibly naïve) Charles, Charles falls in love Sebastien’s sister Celia, and Lady Marchmain keep everyone out of bed with each other, because she’s a Catholic, and thus they are by proxy. I gathered that religion was supposed to be important in this movie, but for 90% of the movie, it just feels like a tool Marchmain uses to make people do what she wants or feel miserable. Then, suddenly, at the climax of the movie, we’re supposed to understand that religion really is important to everybody in the family, and influences every decision they make. This doesn’t really come off, either.

“Brideshead Revisited” is full of English manners, English manors, gardens with sparkling ponds where young men go skinny dipping, torrid affairs, crushing guilt, crushing girdles, sudden trips to exotic locations, and train stations. All the necessary ingredients for an adequate English period drama. Sadly, the ingredients don’t add up to much at all, beyond another generic English period drama. I haven’t read or seen the source material, but I’m pretty sure it was better than this.

Recommended

  • to anyone who simply loves the form and fancy of the English period drama.
  • To fans of the original novel. You may be able to supply the subtext that makes this a good story, or you may just really enjoy hating it.

Not Recommended

  • to 90% of males on the planet.
  • To fans of the miniseries. I don’t think loving that will translate to loving this, as might happen with the novel. Probably the opposite.
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