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Brideshead Revisited

A sumptuous period melodrama of a wealthy English family's collapse

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It's been at least 25 years since I read Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, and I can't even recall if I saw the 1981 British television series based on the book. Therefore, Waugh purists beholden to the book and/or television series will be spared any comment from me about how this latest adaptation, from director Julian Jarrold (Becoming Jane) matches up.

On its own merits, this handsomely filmed feature is a fine piece of melodrama-plus. There's the entertaining aspect of beautifully dressed people engaged in family dysfunction and troubled romance, but also more thoughtful critiques of class, social mores and religion (in this case, a rather fervent brand of English Catholicism).

The story follows Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), whose assignment during World War II to a stately country mansion recalls his youth spent with the estate's family. In a voiceover, Ryder professes to now feel only guilt, so we're cued to expect an unhappy tale.

In flashback, young middle-class Ryder arrives at Oxford, where he encounters a conduit to the privileged life in the dissolute form of Sebastian Flyte (Ben Wishaw). Sebastian is sensitive, implicitly gay, alcoholic; his impetuous childlike demeanor -- he carries a teddy bear named Aloysius -- barely conceals his pain. Much of his torment, confided to Ryder during a visit to his grand home, Brideshead, comes from his domineering, deeply Catholic mother.

Still, Ryder is enamored of Brideshead, and of flighty Sebastian and his beautiful, arch sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and is hungry for inclusion. Even the imperious matriarch, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), offers politely limited hospitality. She strikes a deal with Ryder -- a devil's bargain, it turns out -- that he may enjoy the family's beneficence, if he keeps Sebastian out of trouble. Naturally, it all goes horribly wrong.

Throughout, the genteel callousness of the very rich is an easy critique to read, particularly in its over-bred, hothouse-raised victims such as the Flyte children. (Another sibling, Bridley, is virtually neutered.) Jarrold lays the trappings of the exotic, fearsome Flyte Catholicism on a bit thick, no doubt to bolster the import of this "otherness" within the narrative's historical context. But some of the moments meant to shock drew titters from a Pittsburgh screening audience, likely harboring many well-seasoned, contemporary Catholics.

But Brideshead is also quite enjoyable as a top-shelf work of melodrama. The inclusion of Ryder into this fraught milieu, as a somewhat naïve and unwitting catalyst (and our witness), simply highlights and intensifies existing fault lines. In the end, nobody is left undamaged. Not even the gorgeous titular manor home remains intact, downgraded to bivouacking soldiers, and likely destined to stand as a dusty tourist monument to an era gone by.

Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), left, seeks a new place with Flyte siblings, Julia (Hayley Atwell) and Sebastian (Ben Wishaw).
  • Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), left, seeks a new place with Flyte siblings, Julia (Hayley Atwell) and Sebastian (Ben Wishaw).

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