A New Film Reinterprets 'Brideshead Revisited'

Anyone who fell in love with the landmark 11-part British TV series of "Brideshead Revisited" 26 years ago is likely to approach the movie version debuting next week with extreme trepidation. Not to mention all those who have fallen under the spell of Evelyn Waugh's opulent, elegiac 1945 novel. How could this rich work possibly be condensed into a film running a bit over two hours?

Director Julian Jarrold ("Becoming Jane") and screenwriters Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock clearly knew they'd be facing comparisons—Jarrold, not wanting to be influenced by the Granada TV series, claims not to have seen the original. They argue that this literary classic, like a Shakespeare play, needs to be reinterpreted for a new generation, re-evaluated with contemporary eyes.

In fact, more than any Waugh novel, "Brideshead" lends itself to different readings: what you take away from it says as much about your own obsessions and world view as it does about Waugh's intentions. Written during the privations of World War II, the book looks back to the '20s and '30s, memorializing the last gasp of the dying aristocratic order. Waugh's stand-in is the covetous, wide-eyed, middle-class painter Charles Ryder, who falls in love with the children of the Marchmain family, Roman Catholic aristocrats who invite him into their imposing ancestral home, Brideshead Castle.

According to Waugh, who converted to Catholicism in 1930, his theme was "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters." Yet the primal "Brideshead" image to me is the one that adorned the paperback I read in college: the charming, decadent Sebastian Flyte carrying a teddy bear. For some it may be the grand estate itself and its real-life stand-in: Castle Howard, a setting so iconic in the series that the filmmakers used it again. For many who worshiped weekly at the "Brideshead" altar in 1982, the series was the apotheosis of a certain mandarin gay sensibility, even though the homosexual motifs were always unstated, and the nature of Charles's infatuation with Sebastian left ambiguous. I'd bet that many barely remember the issues of sin and sacrifice and Catholic guilt that lurk in the mystical depths of "Brideshead's" last act. For the non-Catholic reader, and for contemporary viewers, Waugh's spiritual themes don't quite take hold; it's as if he created characters too strong to fit the mold of their author's intentions. His artistry outshone his ideology.

The remarkable thing about Jarrold's movie is how much of the book it manages to capture. The focus has shifted: it's structured as a love triangle. Ryder (Matthew Goode, in the role that made Jeremy Irons a star) falls first for the dandy Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), who widens his worldly horizons, and then for his sophisticated, spiritually conflicted sister Julia (Hayley Atwell). Sebastian's sexual attraction to Charles has been made more explicit; his jealousy when he discovers (in a scene that's not in the novel) that Ryder and Julia are in love is the trauma that sends him spiraling into his alcoholic decline.

As Sebastian, the thin, dark-haired Whishaw is both the most riveting thing about the movie and the most problematic, for he has radically reinvented the character. Febrile, tightly wound and more overtly gay than the blond, debonair Anthony Andrews, Whishaw's vulnerable Sebastian seems doomed from the get-go. Jarrold's movie, rushing too fast through the halcyon days at Oxford, short-shrifts Sebastian's legendary charm.

Other omissions are painful but understandable: the extravagant, stuttering queen Anthony Blanche has been reduced to a cameo; young Cordelia barely registers; Ryder's father, played by John Gielgud on TV, has lost his best scenes. What remains, however, is formidable. Emma Thompson makes the iron-willed Lady Marchmain a figure both terrifying and sympathetic; Michael Gambon's lusty Lord Marchmain, who's abandoned his family for life in Venice with his mistress (Greta Scacchi), gets the most out of his brief appearances, and Atwell is a wonderfully sensual and sharp-edged Julia, torn between her love for Charles and her religious beliefs.

The toughest role, because it's so reactive, is Ryder himself. Because the film doesn't rely as heavily on voice-over to convey his inner thoughts, Goode faces a challenge illuminating the soul of this diffident, divided, ambitious man, whose own social and sexual aspirations even he doesn't fully understand. It's a solid, sensitive performance. He sounds remarkably like Irons, but he doesn't have Irons's quicksilver transparency, that ability to let us see the roiling feelings under Charles's formal English reserve.

Think of Jarrold's briskly paced, stylish abridgment as a fine introduction to Waugh's marvelously melancholy elegy. It brings these unforgettable characters to life again, and if it sends people back to the novel, and back to the classic TV series, codirected by Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg, all the better. There's room for more than one "Brideshead" in this far less glamorous day and age.