In general I try to avoid making comparisons between a movie and the original work it was based on. Different versions of a story reflect not only the intrinsic aesthetic concerns of their respective media, but also the particular sensibilities and interpretations of the artists. Each work is its own creation, to be judged on its own merits.
The new film version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, looked at simply on its own terms, is a lovely piece of filmmaking. The cinematography is rich and sensuous, the actors are excellent — Ben Whishaw, in the challengingly diverse role of Sebastian Flyte, carries the film until Emma Thompson, as overbearing matriarch Lady Marchmain, takes over the dramatic heavy lifting.
The film’s pacing shows nice moments of admirable restraint, lingering lovingly for a moment or two on a particularly intimate moment between characters before moving on with the story. If it seems hurried in other places, it’s only because it has a lot of story to cram into its two-hour and thirteen-minute running time. Yet it didn’t feel like a particularly long movie. Given the depth of character, drama, and metaphor, it could have easily filled another two and a half hours — or five. Or it could have filled out an eleven-hour miniseries.
So much for enjoying it on its own terms.
The fact is that in this story of familial dysfunction among Britain’s gentry, Waugh created a wonderful, rich metaphor for the Catholic Church as it made its way into the Twentieth Century and beyond. Surrounded by one of the finest, most majestic old estates in all of England, the Lords and Ladies of Brideshead Manor fail to see or appreciate the rich legacy they are all heir to. Only their friend Charles Ryder (played here by Matthew Goode) seems to truly appreciate it.
As an artist and historian, Ryder is particularly attracted to the beauty the others take for granted. As an avowed atheist, he is the consummate outsider. Little wonder that Sebastian, the unabashedly homosexual black sheep of the family, and Julia (Hayley Atwell) the self-professed “heathen” daughter, both fall in love with him– even as he falls in love not only with them but with the stately grandeur of their heritage.
Both the novel and the 1981 miniseries are able to take time to develop these relationships — a luxury this movie just doesn’t have. Here, characters are too often reduced to quick, easy stereotypes. Ultimately, I came away feeling that the movie sacrifices too much in order to just get through the story.
It’s been many years since I read Waugh’s novel, and several more since I saw the British TV miniseries. I came away from this movie with the urge to revisit both these masterful works. If that was the aim of the film, then it certainly succeeded. But, much as I enjoyed this new movie version, I don’t expect I’ll feel the same desire to return to it years from now. So the movie succeeds only insofar as it points back toward its original source. But as a work of art in its own right, it falls somewhat short.