Moviegoers today may have trouble relating to a society that strait-jackets its members by class, one where religion is taken so seriously that a clash in views imperils marriages, one where “the love that dare not speak its name” is so crippling that it drives a rich, intellectually promising young man to a suicidal kind of alcoholism.
But I hope they'll try.
The setting is England between the two World Wars, the source material is Evelyn Waugh's novel “Brideshead Revisited,” and the new film of it is often powerful, though presented throughout with British understatement. (I don't believe I heard a single person raise his voice, except to be heard in a crowd.)
Fans of the 11-hour miniseries, which made a star of Jeremy Irons in 1981, may be saddened by the loss of details in a version one-fifth as long. Yet writers Jeremy Brock and Andrew Davies and director Julian Jarrold distilled Waugh's novel and have caught many important essences, making one enormous change in the first half and one small but significant alteration later.
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We still see the story from the view of Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), an officer stationed at the country estate of Brideshead in the early 1940s. The house sets him thinking of long-gone inhabitants: devout Catholic Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson), restless daughter Julia (Hayley Atwell) and doomed son Sebastian (Ben Whishaw), whom Ryder met in the '20s at Oxford University.
Charles falls in love with flighty Sebastian, whose wit masks a profound sadness: His mother condemns his sexual preference, and his own religious belief makes him fear damnation. Ryder's homosexual feelings give way (as they did for many British schoolboys) to an interest in women; he turns to Julia, but his atheism creates a gulf between them. (This is the big change; Waugh had Ryder fall for both, but not at the same time in a love triangle.)
Waugh understood these people. Like Charles, he attended a humble preparatory school, may have had homosexual encounters, went to Oxford (where he didn't finish), was an agnostic and longed to cross class barriers. He ultimately married and adopted Catholicism, which gets a sympathetic but ambiguous treatment in the book: The religion is a great consoler yet also a great divider, coming between lovers who seem destined for each other. (Perhaps he'd say they were not, unless both believed.)
The filmmakers hold fast to this vision. Their movie takes a while to build tension, but we finally get used to its emotional rhythms and see that British guilt and love are as intense as any other kind – maybe more intense for being so stifled, like suppressed lava.
The fine acting benefits from luxury casting (Thompson and Michael Gambon as Sebastian's separated parents) and the intensity of Goode and Atwell. Whishaw is evanescent as Sebastian: fragile, glittering, a human soap bubble certain to pop when enough pressure is applied. However exotic the period cars and clothes may seem now, you may recognize him if you look hard enough among your acquaintances.