The new movie of 'Brideshead Revisited' camps up the relationship between Charles and Sebastian, misunderstands Waugh's world of class and social nuance and paints a risible picture of English Catholicism. It does a great disservice to the novel and is grossly inferior to the 1981 mini-series, writes Eileen Battersby.
IT NEVER sounded like a good idea, or even necessary. Remakes have a tendency to end up like crumpled, patched-together second-hand suits or worse still, resemble that cruel habit of bringing champion racehorses out of retirement for the inevitable tragedy - death on the track. From the earliest mentions of a forthcoming film version of Evelyn Waugh's iconic novel, Brideshead Revisited, the reaction was almost uniformly "Why?" Why attempt a condensed film version of a novel that had been so brilliantly well-served by Granada TV's equally iconic, seminal, 11-part series?
That fact alone, 13 hours of television condensed to two hours of cinema, should have directed even the most determined of intending film-makers to look elsewhere for a less complex text from which to extract a movie, never mind returning to the same setting, Castle Howard. The legendary television adaptation, now 26 years old, timeless and widely available on DVD, made a major star of Jeremy Irons. It also emphasised that Waugh's gracious prose remains a force to be reckoned with.
Novelist John Mortimer discovered that early on in the drafting of his adaptation. Brideshead Revisitedspanned 13 hours of television because Waugh's text, as much as the complicated story, took over. Mortimer not only looked to the text, he allowed it to dictate the script - it isthe script. The series was not only faithful to the novel and capitalised on Waugh's vivid characterisation through inspired casting, but it allowed the narrator, Charles Ryder, to be exactly that, a narrator. In achieving this, the makers of the series had the perfect instrument, the beautiful speaking voice of Irons, which articulated Charles Ryder's aspirations, longing and regret.
British television has repeatedly proven it has a special flair for period costume drama. Brideshead Revisited, set in the years between the first and second World Wars, just about qualifies as a period work, and yet this remarkable series, consolidated by Geoffrey Burgon's haunting, distinctive score, stands shoulder to shoulder with adaptations of 19th-century classics by Austen and Dickens, Trollope, George Eliot and Hardy. British film-makers also have access to a rich resource, British acting talent, which lends itself to the demands of delivering period text. Cinema adaptations of novels have a poor track record. For every one that works, there are numerous laments that "it's not as good as the book". Director Julian Jarrold's stillborn Brideshead Revisited is a camp, heavy-handed travesty that takes unforgivable liberties with the novel. And for once, no one can blame Hollywood: this is a British mess.
SO WHAT EXACTLY was Jarrold, a middle-aged, middle-class and cultured Englishman who has successfully directed Great Expectations, attempting to do with this truncated soap-opera version? He more than most should have understood Waugh's world of class and social nuance, yet he doesn't, and he also appears to have failed to grasp the novel's intent. Why? Why change the text? Why distort it? Why parody English Catholicism? Why dispatch Julia off to Venice with Charles and Sebastian? Why invent a lover's chase? Why reduce Sebastian to a repressed homosexual furious that his best friend has eyes for his sister? Why present Charles Ryder as being more in love with Brideshead the house than with Sebastian or Julia? Why present Rex as willing to "sell" Julia in exchange for two of Charles's paintings? Why present Lord Marchmain asMichael Gambon's bewildered old classless codger? Why? Why? Why?
Brideshead Revisitedworks as a novel because it offers a detailed account of Ryder's slow journey towards an understanding of love, romance, feeling and his response to a world which he was not born into but that is capable of stimulating his inherent aesthetic sensibility.
A disillusioned officer returns by chance to a great family house, now serving as a military base, a house he had known as a young man. Now 39 and, as he remarks to his cheerful subordinate, Hooper, "homeless, childless, middle aged and loveless", the sight of the house, the mention of the family, causes him to remember, to revisit. Waugh was immensely clever, a natural satirist, but Brideshead Revisitedis not social satire. It is sophisticated, nostalgic and bizarrely moving. It looks to innocence lost and the multilayered nature of guilt.
The quasi-erotic element undercutting Sebastian's fascination with Charles in the novel has far more to do with the beautiful Sebastian's desire to hide within his already crazily extended childhood and also to find companionship with a person who is quite unlike his family.
Charles is his pal, his special possession; their friendship is intense, shrouded in affectation but not overtly sexual (Anthony Blanche, cosmopolitan and camp, is the resident college homosexual and is baited for his sexuality). He openly pursues Charles.
Charles, the clever middle-class aspiring aesthete with a passion for art and architectural history, clearly did not have much of a childhood with his remote widower father. The two lonely boys-about-to-become-men together attempt, with the help of Sebastian's Arcadian family home, to experience the enduring Edwardian escapist dream, endless boyhood summers in the country, albeit summers fuelled with alcohol and cigarettes. Waugh is exploring idealised companionship, not sexuality - and Mortimer respects this, while the new film does not.
In meeting Sebastian, Charles Ryder encounters two new worlds. The first is that of the English aristocracy, long settled in Palladian country homes, people who dress formally for dinner each evening. The second is far more complicated: English Catholicism at its most tormented. Lady Marchmain, having been abandoned by her husband, turns to God. It may appear superficial, but Jarrold's cast suffers from having to undertake roles that have already been filled by superior talents. Matthew Goode's Charles Ryder is far closer to a stuffy Prince Charles with an eye on property than he is to Waugh's young artist, while Ben Whishaw would be more suited to playing in Mervyn Peake's Titustrilogy than he is to interpreting Sebastian Flyte.
The petulantly charming Anthony Andrews, in the TV series, conveys Sebastian's fantastical despair with a vulnerable fatalism that is as subtle as it is unsettling. It was and remains a definitive performance.
Irons balances the young Ryder's awkwardness with his own natural grace and angular beauty. His face is consistently registering wonder and pleasure at his new luxury. Goode's Ryder looks as if he is a real-estate agent who has swallowed something unpleasant. Put bluntly, Irons and Andrews (although both were closer to 30 than 20 at the time of the TV series) are attractively convincing as college friends who experience the birth and painful death of an intense relationship, which is killed by Sebastian's alcoholism and his mother's recruitment of Charles as her spy. Lady Marchmain's involvement ruins Sebastian's belief in Charles's loyalty.
GOODE AND WHISHAW have no chemistry, which results in their scenes collapsing into camp melodrama. Emma Thompson, who deservedly won an Oscar for her performance in Howards End, struggles in the worst performance of her career as a decidedly middle-class Lady Marchmain. Admittedly, a Thompson who gives the impression of being about to burst out laughing has no hope of matching Claire Bloom's splendidly controlling portrayal of the family matriarch.
As a director, Jarrold is entitled to impose his interpretation of the text on his film. Making that interpretation convince, however, is quite another element. The casting is a huge weakness. In addition to seeing each actor in this new film version appear to impersonate the superior performances achieved in the TV series - such as John Gielgud playing Charles's father with the calculated detachment of a professional chess player, or Laurence Olivier as a tetchy Lord Marchmain - the roles are condensed. Many of the characters, such as Anthony Blanche, Brideshead and the colonial outsider Rex Mottram, are mere caricatures. Cordelia, the sensitive, perceptive younger sister and the novel's truth-teller, is sidelined, while Charles Ryder's wife Celia's unfaithfulness, the cause of some of the older established artist's sour retreat from life, is left out - as are his children.
Jarrold also fails to convey the sense of time passing and misses Waugh's irony. Yet for all the miscasting and other faults, the ultimate failure of Jarrold's Bridesheadlies in its risible depiction of English Catholicism. In an early scene Charles, having been summoned to Brideshead to entertain the injured Sebastian, is met by Julia at the train station. As they drive along, Charles notices with horror that Julia is wearing a simple crucifix around her neck. His shocked glance suggests that she is wearing a human skull dripping with blood or perhaps there could be a crown of thorns lying on the back seat. From that point on it is obvious that the religion issue will be treated as a cross between black magic and vampirism. At one point, Thompson as Lady Marchmain leads the family in a spontaneous burst of Latin plainchant that strains all credulity.
In later life, Waugh came to reject Brideshead Revisitedas too lush and overwritten. A Handful of Dustand the Sword of Honourtrilogy are better novels, yet Brideshead Revisitedis a fine book, dark, subtle and articulate - everything this new movie is not. Published in 1945 it expresses the pain and the doubt that troubled the impossibly clever Waugh, who was a convert to Catholicism. Admirers of the novel or of the television series, or of both, will recoil at this movie. Yet the greater pity is for those who have not read the book, or seen the series.
Read the novel, watch the television series. As for this disappointing, unnecessary, ill-conceived new film, avoid it. There are many lawns to be mowed, many mountains to climb, many songs to sing.
• Brideshead Revisitedgoes on general release tomorrow