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Brideshead Revisited

By John Mulderig
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- Aficionados of Evelyn Waugh 1945 masterpiece and of its faithful 1981 Granada Television adaptation will find the film version of "Brideshead Revisited" (Miramax/BBC) well acted and lushly outfitted, but substantially re-imagined in its essentials.

The novel is a Catholic convert's meditation on the inscrutable, sometimes astounding, operations of God's grace; director Julian Jarrold's sweeping period drama is predominantly a cautionary tale about the negative effects of guilt-inflicting religious fundamentalism.

Middle-class 1920s Oxford University student Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), Waugh's spiritually clueless but sympathetic modern Everyman, is here not merely dazzled and enchanted by the Brideshead estate, he covets it. His entree there results from his almost romantic friendship with aristocratic scion Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw).

In co-writers Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock's script, as in the novel, the precise nature of their relationship is left vague. Waugh presents this as a youthful dalliance that paves the way, years later, for Charles' mature, though adulterous, relationship with Sebastian's fascinatingly enigmatic sister Julia (Hayley Atwell).

Here, with the plot streamlined, it's portrayed as a simultaneous, directly competing -- even if platonic -- love interest. Sebastian's feeling of rejection, moreover, becomes in the film a more direct cause of his descent into alcoholism.

Most responsible for his fall is his controlling, religiously obsessed mother (an arctic Emma Thompson) with whom Charles soon finds himself in conflict. Deserted by her husband Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon), now living in Venice with his Italian mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi), Lady Marchmain uses God and his "limits," as she calls them, to keep her children in line.

Sebastian, like his father, eventually flees from her. (The emaciated Wishaw, his figure recalling images of the desert ascetic Charles de Foulcauld, poignantly embodies the physically and emotionally broken, yet strangely peaceful exile.) But Julia, despite her love for the self-proclaimed atheist Charles, faces her mother's efforts to railroad her into marriage with the vulgarly materialistic but Catholic -- and therefore acceptable -- Rex Mottram (Jonathan Cake).

Apart from Emma Thompson's regal turn here, performances are less memorable than in the series, which featured some of the greatest actors of the past century at the top of their game.

Where Laurence Olivier's Lord Marchmain was a weary sophisticate, Gambon's is a roue with a knowing twinkle in his eye; Patrick Malahide, as Charles' father -- one of the most deftly sketched British eccentrics in modern literature -- is cleverly malign, but John Gielgud presented a deceptive patina of avuncular good humor as well. And while the film keeps narration to a minimum, Jeremy Irons' voiceovers, in the role that made him a star, set each perfectly calibrated mood.

Given the limited scope of a feature film -- the television series ran nearly 11 hours -- changes to a long novel's plot are inevitable. Fundamental alterations of theme and perspective, though, are another matter.

Waugh implicitly represents the Catholic faith as the "pearl of great price" for the acquisition or preservation of which every necessary earthly sacrifice should be made. While this uncompromising outlook, even more provocative today than it was for Waugh's contemporaries, does guide some of the film characters' later actions, for most of the movie, the family's religious heritage looms as an oppressive, destructive force.

This shift in values -- which renders the faith's enduring fascination for the initially skeptical Charles largely inexplicable -- is reinforced by the film's final scene where his spiritual fate, subtly but definitely conveyed in the novel, is left unresolved.

The film contains nongraphic adulterous sexual activity, brief rear nudity, a passing same-sex kiss, and occasional crass language. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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Mulderig is on the staff of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. More reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.


Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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