|Catholicism on the Cheap Charles (Matthew Goode), Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) and Julia (Hayley Atwell), surrounded by similarly gaudy decoration|
We’ve been spoiled. For years, Merchant Ivory and Granada produced lush period productions of classic English novels that were feasts for the eyes and the intellect and that forever set a standard — and expectations — for the kind of historical drama that we could expect from British cinema. What an unpleasant surprise then to witness the remake of Brideshead Revisited that is currently in release. We can never again assume artfulness on the part of British filmmakers — even when it comes to handling their national treasures. The new film, cobbled together by screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies and directed by Julian Jarrold, turns the passionate story of Charles Ryder’s religious redemption into a period potboiler about a love triangle gone wrong.
The original television film, serialized by Granada Television in 1981, arrived like a comet, surpassing Evelyn Waugh’s novel and becoming a significant artistic achievement on its own. Upon its first showing by PBS in the US, each episode was introduced by William F. Buckley and was analyzed afterward by Buckley in conversation with British journalist Malcolm Muggerridge. They provided context and illumination of Catholic themes in the story that might have been opaque to a nation of American Protestants. It was a big deal.
And rightly so. Over a period of 11 hours, writer John Mortimer and director Charles Sturridge invested their production with the kind of luxurious detail that only time can afford. The result was something greater than the source material from which it was drawn, with fully developed characters and complex themes that did not want for explanation. Listening to Charles’ narration, taken directly from the novel, we stand beside him at Oxford and Brideshead Castle and experience his development as a man and lover, first with Sebastian and later with Sebastian’s sister Julia. We are seduced as he is by the aquatint landscapes, the summers redolent with strawberries and wine and the rains in Venice. The affair with Sebastian is not explicit but suggested and indirect, as it would be for adolescents first learning how to love. When Cara, mistress of Lord Marchmain, speaks directly of Charles’ and Sebastian’s “romantic friendship” it is a bit jarring and we feel the embarrassment that Charles expresses to have this love given a name. But our discomfort is relieved by her sympathy and proclamation of, “how wonderful it is to sit in the shade and speak of love.” Wonderful indeed.
There is no such subtlety in the current remake. In order to fit the novel into two hours incredible liberties are taken with the story. Sebastian, one of the most charming characters ever written, is presented as a petulant hysteric with a drinking problem. His decline is precipitated not by feelings of inadequacy before the terrible demands of his faith but by seeing Charles making out with his sister. And Julia, whose own religious crisis as a woman makes up the later part of the novel, is here presented as a Lolita with a bad conscience. She has the requisite breakdown, but the audience is left in the dark as to why.
Emma Thompson, channeling her inner Rommel, is all frosty white hair and adamantine jawline — delivering her stark speeches with almost comic ferocity. She plays Lady Marchmain as self-propelled battle axe, wantonly destroying her children with sadistic abandon. When she pronounces to Charles that happiness in this life “does not matter” and that life in the hereafter is all that counts, she turns one of the most complex characters in modern English literature into a simple Cruella DeVille knock-off. By the time of her abbreviated death scene (indicated by the clichéd little cough and stagey stagger) the audience wants to sing a chorus of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead”. Terrible.
Though there are futile attempts at referencing the religious themes that make up so much of the book and earlier film, Waugh’s condemnation of “English charm” is utterly absent. Charm, for Waugh a particularly British penchant for the pose of guileless generosity, is fundamentally a method of seduction — it is what leads Charles Ryder astray and, ironically, acts as an agent of his eventual salvation. No, in this telling, Charles is merely a ravenous bounder — charged with being “greedy” by Julia and condemned by Lady Marchmain as wanting, “so much to be liked.” More egregiously, Lord Marchmain accuses Charles from his deathbed of having failed in love and being responsible for Sebastian’s fate. I wonder if this stunning reversal of the meaning of the Ryder character — which turns the logic of the story on its head — was even noticed by the screenwriters.
It’s not clear for whom this movie was made. It lacks any sensible logic that would appeal to adults and, with its dolled up period references and discordant invocation of Catholic themes, can hardly appeal to the current crop of young moviegoers for whom history doesn’t extend beyond yesterday’s text messages. It’s a dismal thing; not here nor there, neither this nor that. We can only hope it dies a quick death at the box office, leaving in its wake a warning to others who would tamper with greatness.